Albert Camus – Lucidity and Decision

“Do your own thing” became a motto for the 1960s – a motto rooted in existentialism.

Sometime around the end of high school or early college I began to give serious attention to a few books outside of school curricula. These books included The Rebel by Albert Camus and The Meaning of Persons by Paul Tournier. Both authors carried me well beyond the circumscribed world of a comfortable white teenager in the deep South, laid before me unexpected ideas, and urged me to respond. I’ll describe here my experience with Camus and save Tournier for the next blog.

The Rebel must have been recommended to me by my younger sister Cathy, 3 years younger than I – a prodigy at existentialism. The copy on my shelf has my marks and annotations, but her name inside the cover. I hope she gave it to me; otherwise I simply “cottoned onto it,” for which I now apologize.

How I persevered through The Rebel I’m not quite sure. Not until some years later did I read the shorter and more accessible essay by Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus. To be honest, both works represented a stretch for me. Together they made a strong impact.

My response to Albert Camus draws from these two philosophical works rather than his widely recognized novels and plays of the absurd. I have regarded him also as personally courageous for his role in the French Resistance during World War II. Until recently I had little recognition of his active, almost tumultuous personal life of revolving friendships and his affairs with women that presaged the sexual revolution of the sixties.[1]

Like the Cretan prophet Epimenides, Albert Camus is difficult to pin down. Though repeatedly unfaithful, he remained married to Francine Faure for 20 years until his death as a passenger in an automobile accident at age 46 in 1960. Though dismissive of imperatives from rationalism and from God whom he regarded as absent, he nevertheless espoused a public morality. It makes me wonder what he might have said in later years if he had lived through and beyond the 1960s.

With French flair Camus named his philosophical themes as suicide and murder, broadly considered:

The Myth of Sisyphus…attempts to resolve the problem of suicide, as The Rebel attempts to resolve that of murder, in both cases without the aid of eternal values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe.[2]

The old values no longer apply, said Camus. To confront the realities of life and death in the early 20th century following the failures of traditional wisdom and religion can be understood only as an exercise in the absurd. Can we come up with reasons to keep on living, avoiding suicide? Is it ever justifiable to kill someone?

Although he rarely spoke of the will as such, Camus thought deeply about personal decision. Choices, he acknowledged, are limited in scope and effect in the course of human life. Yet each person faces, first, a choice of whether to recognize individual mortal constraints with eyes wide open (with lucidity, as he put it) and, second, the option to defy limitations and develop one’s own reasons to act in the absence of meaning externally bestowed – that is, to generate from ordinary activities, pleasures, and relationships the will to pursue life passionately. Otherwise, according to Camus, a person may either passively retreat from lucidity, thus taking a common path of slow suicide, or accept nihilism and willingly repudiate life.

Ultimately death comes to every person, and thus it is absurd to value life. It is possible, nevertheless, to embrace the absurd and life also. Against death he called for rebellion. Alternatives to rebellion are forgetfulness and renunciation, which represent passive surrender to the inevitable. Thus he wrote

Consciousness and revolt, these rejections are the contrary of renunciation. Everything that is indomitable and passionate in a human heart quickens them, on the contrary, with its own life. It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.[3]

Camus found a model in the ancient story of Sisyphus, a Greek king and legendary founder of the city of Corinth. Crafty and deceitful even in his dealing with the gods, Sisyphus twice cheated death, but eventually landed in the underworld, where he was condemned daily to roll a large boulder up a steep hill. As he neared the summit each day, the boulder would slip from his grasp and roll back to the bottom of the hill. Thus he was condemned to eternal effort and futility, a paradigm of the absurd.

At the end of his essay, Camus speaks not of frustration, but of fulfillment in the task of Sisyphus.

All Sisyphus’ joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing [Son rocher est sa chose.]…. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.[4]

What I continue to find appealing about Camus and other existentialists is their claim that values can arise in the context of decisions people make in their lives. No force of pain or delirium, by their estimate, drove Sisyphus to roll the rock upward. He chose to push against it every morning. Why? “Son rocher est sa chose,” translated as “His rock is his thing,” was the only answer. I have to believe that this was the origin of the 1960s slogan “Do your own thing.”

The claim that values do not have to be imposed or granted externally impressed me greatly. The meaning of life is not transcendental in a primary sense, according to the existentialists. It can be found in the day-to-day affairs of humans (see prior blog on Everyday Life).

Is there a message for those of us who believe in God? Camus accepted lack of belief in God as a fixture of the ethos of his place and time among European intellectuals in the mid-20th century. He did not take the trouble to debate belief in God – either for or against – an omission that perplexed me when I first read him in my teenage years.

Look back at the first quote in this blog: “…without the aid of eternal values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe.” What does the parenthetic “temporarily perhaps” tell us? He seems to signal here and through other hints in his writing an openness to transcendental questions that might be broached if more basic concerns such as the value of daily life can be supported first.

In the following sentences from Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, give special attention to the words “just now”:

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms.[5]

If it is impossible “just now” to seek that transcendental meaning, might it be possible sometime in the future to do so?

Moreover, let’s note the obvious: the central metaphor of Sisyphus takes place in afterlife and subsists in eternal repetition. Camus highlights the endless nature of the task to magnify the lesson he is teaching. The effort endures for all time. Was this merely a rhetorical device? Does it point toward a yearning in the human heart for meaning that lasts?

Even Friedrich Nietzsche, the early existentialist who inspired Camus and declared the death of God, did not entirely avoid the allure of eternity. His mimic of prophecy, Thus Spake Zarathustra, presented the eternal recurrence – a dramatic proposal that a person’s life does not end with death, but instead recycles with exactly the same sequence of events, relationships, and decisions repeating an infinite number of times.[6] Notice how the prophecy of eternal recurrence serves to emphasize the importance of here and now. This is the only life you will ever have, and you will have the same life over and over again endlessly. Nietzsche’s message: make the most of it.

Again let me ask whether there are lessons here for all of us, or only for those who like Camus and Nietzsche repudiate traditional religious beliefs? I have tried at times to think of God as the existential hero, bootstrapping meaning out of primordial chaos, creating us as companions for the ultimate road trip.

At the very least let’s recognize that the value claims of the existentialists bear the force of their commitment. Son rocher est sa chose.


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Header image: Modified from detail on 1892 reconstruction of the ancient painting “Nekyia” by Polygnotus. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, Carl Robert and Hermann Schenck.

[1] From, accessed 10/24/2016.

[2] Camus, A. Preface to The Myth of Sisyphus, translO’Brien, J. Vintage, 1955, p. v.

[3] Camus, A. The Myth of Sisyphus, translO’Brien, J. Vintage, 1955, p. 41.

[4] ibid. p. 91.

[5] ibid. p. 38.

[6] Nietzsche, F. in Kaufmann, W.K., ed. and transl., The Portable Nietzsche. Viking Penguin, New York, 1954. Eternal recurrence is described in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part 3, Section 2, pp. 332-333.


Growing Up – the Sixties in Mississippi

-The beginning years of the 1960s marked the end of my childhood and disclosed an outside world looming with conflict. I really didn’t want to face that world directly during my teen years. News events were troubling, but their impact could be largely avoided. The prolonged transition from adolescent to adult that accompanies education aimed at a profession – in my case, medicine – as well as questions of dating and social life absorbed my interest.

I did encounter questions about science and religion. Like a cloud over the terrain of education, family, and friendships floated a quiet tension between differing worldviews, personified in my mother and father (described here). But they clearly loved each other and loved their children more, leaving questions like heaven and hell, authority, skepticism, and others largely unaddressed. Only in hindsight do I recognize what a great gift that was.

Someday I knew the outside world would break through my protective dome. Then I would need to make choices and declare where I stood. Feeling inadequate to the task through most of the sixties, I deferred and kept to studies, friends, casual faith groups, tennis, some basketball and other sports, and books.

In a meadow just north of the city limits of Jackson, Mississippi, our house stood alone, built from steel rebar and poured concrete, large enough to accommodate 10 children and purposefully strong enough to survive a nearby hydrogen bomb hit, if the Soviets ever decided to push the button and if they deemed Jackson a worthy target. My older brother Robert wrote a short story for the high school literary magazine about our family living for weeks in the muddy crawl space under the house following a nuclear attack. In the 6th or 7th grade, as I recall, a newspaper for younger students called The Weekly Reader introduced us to the word “containment” – that is, containment of communism in places far from home like Viet Nam. Later in Civics class we learned about the Domino Theory, the importance of stopping the chain reaction of governments falling to communism.

The civil rights struggle appeared on television news almost daily. My connection to the black community extended only as far as appreciating our maid, but I quietly agreed with my mother that the Bible was on their side. Courage and public decision were questions avoided, as I stayed silent with fearful incipient admiration for those who risked and sometimes lost their lives. I was ignorant, to some extent willfully, of the sanctioned brutal repression of blacks in Mississippi. The first black person near my own age whose name I ever learned was James Chaney, and that was from the newspaper after he was murdered in Neshoba County along with two young white men from New York City.

When the riot happened at Ole Miss, I was a sophomore in high school, two people shot to death in Oxford and President Kennedy sending the Federal marshals and U.S. Army there to ensure that James Meredith could enroll and attend the university. Somehow my oldest brother David, already an Ole Miss Rebel, learned the location of the army’s trash dump, which we visited, and we opened some cardboard cylinders that once held tear gas canisters and sniffed the tear gas.

In Mississippi the liberals were Republicans then; I went to one meeting, but my interest turned in other directions. About a year after the trouble at Ole Miss, Kennedy was assassinated. I was in study period in the high school auditorium when the news arrived. A few guys cheered, and our teacher Mr. Curtis Hall, a former U.S. Marine, became upset and lectured all of us for the rest of the period on respect for our country and our president. I remember walking around the backyard after supper, looking up at the contrasting clouds and sky, as a dry November wind pushed the clouds overhead faster than I had ever seen. I went inside and wrote a free verse poem, writing for the first time from the heart, something about history and danger and the importance of it all – kept that poem in my desk drawer for years but eventually lost it to great regret.

A premonition stumbled forward that someday a crucial question, or several, might break through the protective boundaries of my life. How then would I answer? Would I stay in the shelter of familiar dogma or pure faith, or would I break free and risk becoming an outcast, a wanderer hunting for something I could not name, bent on discovery and exposed to doubt and dispute? Courage, prudence, rashness, cowardice – what would my choices reveal?

But a recurring fear was that decisions were not mine to make at all. Modern science of the mid-20th century taught that the path of life for every person was set by genes and environment. Old time religion told me that only one decision mattered, to put all my faith in God and the Bible just as taught by my church and resolve never to stray from that designated narrow road. I did not want to surrender to either option, but what alternatives could there be?


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Header image:  The concrete house on Meadow Road in Jackson, Mississippi. Family photo.

The Will – Circa 1911

Victorian educators gave great attention to developing “the will” in students. By the early 20th century, “the will” began to disappear. The fledgling science of psychology demanded reproducible, publicly demonstrable effects, which do not fit the idea of will that periodically must “break these rules.”

In a book titled The Pupil and the Teacher, first published in 1911, my grandfather Luther Weigle attempted a synthesis of Victorian will with early psychological thinking. His book was an educational text on how to teach Sunday School. It filled a gap of need, because many churches in the United States were just beginning then to devote an hour of Sunday morning to religious education of children and youth. Despite widespread adoption of Sunday School by churches in the 20th century, the educational gap only grew wider, as moral and religious education faded away in public or secular schools — a trend that my grandfather strenuously opposed.

In the last blog I described how Grandpa’s career and even our family vacations owed much to this book. Yet I hardly heard about it and never picked it up to read until after he passed away in 1976. How I would have liked to discuss it with him!

This blog presents an abridged and slightly revised version of Lesson 10, titled The Will, in The Pupil and the Teacher. I offer this reproduction not because Luther Weigle broke any new ground in philosophy or psychology. His ideas at the time were heavily influenced by William James, an early framer of pragmatism and author of such influential titles as The Will to Believe and The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Weigle’s writing reveals the stance of a clergyman and religious educator who decided as a college student in 1900 that the doctrine of evolution and the new science of psychology posed no irreconcilable conflict with firmly held Christian concepts and views. It is the interplay between science, philosophy, and faith that I find most interesting here, from someone who moved with his times more than foreshadowed them. As you read, note how  he wrote about the will as if it were part of the new (in 1911) science of psychology. Because the will pertains to singular and personal, not universal, effects, I submit that the will does not fit within psychology, but has a close, complex, and ever-changing interface with it. Better to describe it in such terms than to disqualify all thought of the will.

Here is the chapter. I have elected to do it in Reader’s Digest style, simply omitting some nonessential parts without showing where the cuts were made by ellipsis or other indicators. A few words have been inserted to help with transitions, and I have also modestly amended Grandpa’s exclusive use of male gender which I felt might detract from the message to today’s readers. The entire book is available free online.[1]


The Will
Lesson 10 from The Pupil and the Teacher
Luther Allan Weigle, Ph.D.

Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1911

People often speak of the will as though it were a sort of absolute ruler, independent of the rest of the mind, and master of all its ideas and feelings and actions.  The truth is that the will is itself a part of the mind, and must develop as must any other of its faculties.  One’s will depends on ideas and feelings, instincts and habits, just as truly as they in turn are controlled by it.

1.  To understand the will, we must begin with the fundamental principle formulated by William James, that “all consciousness is motor.” Every idea is as well an impulse to act.  Thoughts are forces.  Left to itself, any thought will issue in action.

2.  The distinction between impulsive and voluntary action is this. An action is impulsive that results from the simple presence and impulse of one idea.  When you “speak before you think,” it is not that you did not think the judgment you blurt forth, but that you did not think of anything else but it.  In Bible history King Saul is a notable example of an impulsive man.  His mistakes and sins were the result, not so much of settled badness of character as of a disposition to think of only one thing at a time.  An action is voluntary, on the other hand, when more than one idea has been present, offering an alternative, and it is therefore the result of choice.

3.  Ideas differ greatly, of course, in the degree of impulsive strength which they possess. Some ideas are relatively weak in their push toward action, and others so urgent that they are hard to resist. The strongest of all impulses are associated with those objects which appeal directly to elemental instincts – the bodily appetites, the passions and emotions.  Ideas that are in line with acquired habits may have as great a force. Things near at hand, immediate results and present goods, have an impulsive attraction which diminishes rapidly with their removal in space or postponement in time.  It is much easier to let each moment take care of itself than to act for sake of some end to be realized in the distant future – the here and now seems so much more real, and immediate satisfactions more tangible.  In any normal person, therefore, distinctly rational ideas of action – those derived from far-sighted considerations – are relatively cold and weak in impulsive power.  Such ideas it requires an effort to hold before the mind, in face of the overwhelming surge of stronger impulses.

4.  An act of will involves three things; first, the presence before the mind of alternative lines of action; second, the acceptance of some one as our choice; third, the resulting action.

The first factor of an act of will – the presence of alternatives – depends upon the working of the laws of association.  You cannot will to do a thing unless you first think of it; and you cannot think of it unless it is called up by the laws of association which determine the appearance of ideas before your mind.

The second factor in willing – the power to choose some one of the alternative ideas – depends on the power to keep that idea before the focus of attention.  The secret of will is, after all, concentrated attention.  Just in the degree that one can keep thinking of the right thing and keep other ideas from taking possession of the mind, he or she is certain always to choose the right thing.  The idea that is consistently kept before the mind is pretty sure to issue in action, simply because of its own impulsive power.

And this makes plain the third factor of willing.  The action is not something we add to ideas; it is not some power that we create to help them out.  It is the physical result that naturally follows when an idea is kept steadily before the mind – provided, of course, one has the ability to carry it out.

5.  The will is dependent on the laws of association. We cannot will to do anything of which we have not had some previous experience.  The ideas which shape the will come from former action and their results – actions which we either have done ourselves or have observed in others.

After all, one’s associations measure the degree of freedom which one’s will possesses.  The person who chooses from a wide range of alternatives is more free than the person who can think of only a few possible things to say or do.  To develop a strong and efficient will, one must begin at the foundation by widening the range of his or her ideas, and by making such associations as shall insure that they will be at hand when needed.

There is another side, of course.  The will itself helps to determine what ideas shall come before the mind. Of the many possible ideas that may come up, that is most likely to come which is most in accord with the general trend or purpose of thought for the time.  Under stress of a great grief, everything reminds one of loss; the happy person never thinks of misfortune. At work on your Bible lesson, the name Paul reminds you of your neighbor boy. One set of ideas comes to mind on Sunday, another set at business during the week. A purpose, therefore, if one is really in earnest about it, will keep bringing before the mind such ideas as are consistent with itself.  But, remember, a purpose cannot create ideas.  The will can only select the best of the resources which experience has put at its command.

6.  The idea which holds the attention is the idea which will result in action. Attention may be either spontaneous or voluntary.  Spontaneously, we give attention to ideas which appeal to our interests, our instincts, habits or feelings.  Voluntarily, we keep the attention upon some idea because of its relation to some other idea or purpose.

Undoubtedly a great part of our willing results from attention which makes its choice more or less spontaneously – and it is well that it is so.  But we all know, as a matter of experience, that one can pull oneself together and keep the attention unflinchingly centered on the right thought, to the exclusion of any number of more strongly impulsive ideas that seek to crowd it out.  It demands effort, it costs sacrifice, it often means a tremendous battle; but it can be done.  Here, then, is the very wellspring of freedom within a person.  The things to which she gives attention are not decided for her; they are not even the mechanical results of her own instincts and habits.  He may some day summon an energy of which he himself had never dreamed, and center his life about a new object.

He may; but he most likely will not.  This freedom does not lessen in the least the force of habit and association in molding a life.  The greatest fool on earth is he who lets bad habits and associations enter into the very building of his soul, relying upon his “freedom of will” to purge him of them some day, and to create his life anew.

One condition must be fulfilled if effort is in any case to be put forth.  To command it, an object must seem worthwhile.  It must bring results, or give very definite promise of them.  Attention cannot be kept long, even through effort, upon an unchanging and fruitless object.  The person who can think most fruitfully about some purpose, and who can most vividly imagine its concrete results, will be best able to command the effort needed to hold it before the mind.  For another, the same idea may simply die out, for the very barrenness of thought about it.  Great reformers and discoverers are always intensely imaginative.

7.  It is in the realm of ideas that the real battles of the will are fought. To get the right ideas before the mind, and, once gotten, to hold them there, are the vital issues of good and efficient willing.  After that, the action follows as a natural result of the impulsive power which right ideas, like all others, possess.

One qualification must be put upon this principle.  The action will naturally follow, provided we have not gotten into the habit of resting content with mere thinking.  It is easy enough to fall into that attitude of life which conceives that having ideas is an adequate substitute for carrying them out, that mere thinking of good deeds can take the place of doing them, and that feeling noble sentiments is a sufficient manifestation of right character.

The crowning counsel, then, to secure strength and efficiency of will, is one of the maxims of habit.  Act!  Act decisively and promptly when once you decided what is right.  Seek opportunities to apply in actual doing the things you believe.  This is a counsel of especial importance in connection with religion.

8.  We have described the will thus far in terms chiefly of its relation to the intellect. But we must not forget that the soul has a trinity of powers – feeling as well as intellect and will.  One’s will is determined by feeling as truly as by ideas.  Feeling may enter into each of the three factors of an act of will.  As trend or set of mind, a feeling helps to brig before one ideas consistent with itself.  It keeps the attention naturally and spontaneously upon such as appeal to it.  And it gives to the idea it chooses a degree of impulsive strength that carries one into prompt and whole-souled action.

There is a third great counsel, therefore, for the development of a strong and efficient will.  To right ideas and habits of decisive action add the power of feeling.  Get the affections centered upon things that a worthwhile.  Enlist the heart as well as the mind.

“The expulsive power of a new affection” is life’s eternal miracle. Some have questioned the possibility of conversion. Yet it has been a blessed fact in thousands of lives. Feeling transforms even the working of that hidden mechanism of association that determines one’s thoughts. Often real personhood dates from winning the love of a spouse or from the opening to someone of the heart of a child.  A person’s thoughts, choices, acts, all center about the new devotion.  Conversions are natural.  They are begotten in human relationships as well as divine.  Love is indeed “the greatest thing in the world.”  It saves people.

A person who lacks feeling, even were his or her will strong enough without it, lacks the highest maturity.  The ideal of the stoics is as untrue as it is unlovely.  They sought to look at the world of things and people calmly, dispassionately and impersonally.  Feeling, they thought, but clouds the vision and brings turmoil to the soul.  A person ought to be purely rational, with a mind that Huxley called a perfect “logic machine.”  And so one might well be, if living alone, the only person in a world of matter, with only the problem of comprehending impersonal forces, and only the aim of managing them.  But our world is not such.  We live with other persons.  Life’s real problems are social; its true values are those of personal relationship.  Even a God who was absolutely alone would have nothing to live for.  We need feeling, therefore.  It is the link that binds one person to another, the fire that warms an otherwise dead and cheerless world.  Without it, one might understand things, but could never live with and for persons.

Just as feeling exists for sake of personal relationships, it is begotten early in personal relationships.  You cannot by precept or proverb teach a feeling to your pupil, or generate it by command.  It must be by life with her or him.  The secret of “personal work” is personal relationship.

9.  The final secret of strength of will is the grace of God.  What is true of the feeling begotten in earthly relationships is infinitely more true of those that spring from the contact of the soul with its Father.  There is no love like His, no feeling mightier than the sense of His presence and help.  Not upon ideas and sheer effort of attention merely, not even upon the strength alone that comes from earthly affection, need the wills of men and women rely; they may lay hold of the love and grace of an almighty God.  The experience that Paul records in the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, is true of all humanity.  Whoever fails of human strength to break free from “the law of sin and death” may yet live to “thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”


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Header image:  Two of Grandpa’s books. Own photo. CC0 Public Domain.

[1], accessed October 9, 2016. Book digitized by Google from the library of Harvard University and uploaded to the Internet Archive by user tpb. PDF version may be preferred, as electronic text rendering is flawed.

The Pupil and the Teacher

In 1911 Luther Weigle authored a 217 page textbook on teaching Sunday School, a book that remained in production more than 30 years and eventually sold more than 1 million copies. Were there really that many Sunday School teachers in America?

The book was titled The Pupil and the Teacher. Its byline read “Officially recognized as a Text-book by the International Sunday School Association.”

Royalties from the book enabled Luther and Clara Weigle to build their summer home at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. In the previous blog I disclosed how Sunapee fulfilled my every childhood dream for a place to visit for several weeks almost every summer. Yet until mid-adult life I had never opened the book that made it possible.

What would a long book about teaching Sunday School look like? Below is the Table of Contents for my grandfather’s book. (You can also find the entire book free online.)


The first chapter is an introduction. The second on physical activity seems to prefigure the Montessori movement in early education. Weigle wrote –

It is out of this very turmoil of activity, all lacking in unity as it is, and out of it alone, that growth and development, experience and intelligence, habit and will, can come…. We will seek to use and direct, rather than repress, the physical activity of childhood. The child who is forced to be quiet and to sit still is failing to get what he needs most to build for him a sturdy body, a sound mind, and the right sort of character. “A child shut up without play,” said Martin Luther, “is like a tree that ought to bear fruit but is planted in a flower-pot.”

He gave this warning:

Unhappiness and discouragement, distrust and alienation, sullenness and defiance, or else weak-willed dependence – are some of the results within a child who is continually assailed with don’ts.

He continued

Our grown-up point of view almost inevitably distorts our interpretation of what children do and say. One way to guard against this is to go to the “child you knew best of all.” Remember from your own childhood how a child thinks and feels. Get back to your own point of view, your interests and activities, your reasonings and attitudes, when you were the age of those you now teach. But, after all, if you are really to know and help children, you must share their life. “If we want to educate children,” said Martin Luther, “we must live with them ourselves.” Nothing can take the place of this direct personal relationship. With it, you perhaps need know but little of the laws of the mind or of the scientifically observed characteristics of child life; without it, no amount of training can make a teacher of you.[1]

The next 5 chapters in The Pupil and the Teacher followed the stages of children’s physical and mental growth as outlined in John Mason Tyler’s Growth and Education, published in 1907. The 3 chapters on Instinct, Habit, and the Will leaned heavily on William James’ Psychology: the Briefer Course (1892), a debt openly acknowledged.

Weigle summarized interactions of instinct, habit, and will as follows:

Any ordinary action is partly instinctive, partly voluntary, and partly habitual. Instinct determines our general tendencies or attitudes in presence of a situation, and so lays down certain broad limits within which action will lie. The will determines its specific character and purpose. Habit, finally, takes care of the details of its execution.[2]

The inclusion of habit among three determinants of action may reflect the influence of Charles Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, who said, “The whole function of thought is to produce habits of action.”[3]  William James and subsequently Weigle urged that good, useful habits should be formed as early in life as possible.

Regarding the role of teachers, Weigle provide this quote from Martin Luther:

“For my part, if I were compelled to leave off preaching and to enter some other vocation, I know no work that would please me better than that of teaching. For I am convinced that, next to preaching, this is by far the most useful, the greatest, and the best labor in the world; and, in fact, I am sometimes in doubt which of the two is the better. For you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, and it is hard to reform old sinners, yet that is what by preaching we undertake to do, and our labor is often in vain; but it is easy to bend and to train young trees.”[4]

For the hard work of developing character in children, Weigle reminded the Sunday School teacher –

You have God’s help in your work…. But consecration alone will not make of you a teacher. Spirituality does not insure efficiency. God’s help does not relieve you of responsibility…. God will not do all the work; you are more than a tool of His, more than a mere channel for His Spirit. God asks your help – that is the greatest thing life can bring to anybody. The consecration He seeks is not passive submission, but a consecration of work – of brain and hands and feet that are able as well as willing to do something for Him. He asks you not simply to trust Him, but to remember how He trusts you. He has faith enough in you to give you a piece of work to do.[5]

My own Sunday School experience through teenage years seemed to focus repeatedly on trusting God. Of course, that’s very important. But what a powerful message is delivered when we read, “He asks you not simply to trust Him, but to remember how He trusts you.”

When our family visited Sunapee on vacation, it was Grandpa who would sit down in the evening to read to the smaller children (see header image). The books mostly from the 1920s and 1930s might include Fraid Cat, or The Whineys, or another I recall in which vegetables dressed up as knights of medieval times, assisted by their worthy servants, the vitamins.

Sometimes he would tell a story just from memory. One of our favorites described faithful Tobey, a little dog who protected his family’s children from hopgoblins. Warning – old German fairy tales are not sugar-coated! As you read, think about Luther Weigle’s deep voice and preacher’s pacing –

Tobey was just a little dog, but he was very brave. When the hopglobins came in the middle of the night, Tobey barked “R-r-rarff! Rarff! Yip-yip-yip!” loudly as he chased and shooed them away. The children’s father heard the noise and came running, but he didn’t see the goblins. They were already gone. He was angry, because Tobey had waked him up from a deep sleep! What do you think the father did? He cut off Tobey’s left front leg to teach him not to bark in the middle of the night.

The next night the hopglobins came back! Tobey barked “R-r-rarff! Rarff! Yip-yip-yip! Rarff! Rarff!” and the goblins ran away. Here came Father again. Do you think he was angry? Tobey had waked up everybody again. He cut off Tobey’s right front leg. “Tobey, that will teach you a lesson,” he said.

Hopglobins don’t give up easily, and they came back again the next night. Tobey barked again “R-r-rarff! Rarff! Yip-yip-yip!” and he scared them away. Father came in, and he said not a word. He cut off Tobey’s left hind leg.

Now the hopgoblins knew that Tobey could not chase them easily, and the next night they became bold enough to come into the children’s room again. But Tobey barked “R-r-rarff! Rarff! Yip-yip-yip! Rarff! Rarff! Rarff!” and hopped around on his one leg, and what do you think? The goblins ran away. But Father came in and said, “Tobey, you must never do this again,” and he cut off Tobey’s last leg.

The hopgoblins knew now that Tobey could not chase them at all. They came back the next night. But Tobey barked louder than ever, “R-R-RARFF! RARFF! YIP-YIP-YIP!” And the goblins ran away.

What did Father do this time? He cut out Tobey’s tongue.

The next night the hopglobins came back. Tobey could not do anything to help, because he had no tongue and could not bark. He had no legs and could not chase. And the goblins carried all the little children away.

I’m not sure why we liked that gruesome and scary story so much, asking for it just before bedtime many evenings. Maybe because Grandpa liked it even more than we did. “Do you think that Father was sorry for what he did?” he asked.

In the next blog, I’ll present a slightly abridged version of my grandfather’s chapter on The Will.


Next post:  The Will – Circa 1911 – pending

Previous post:  Clara and Luther

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Header image:  Luther Weigle reading to grandchildren, circa 1964. Family photo.

[1] Weigle, L.A., The Pupil and the Teacher, Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1911, p. 11. (Here is a link to the whole book. I recommend the PDF version, since electronic text translation may be flawed.)

[2] Ibid., p. 65.

[3] For a longer quote, see this earlier blog. Charles Peirce and William James enjoyed a close, lifelong friendship. The quote is from How to Make Our Ideas Clear, first published in Popular Science Monthly (Jan. 1878), pp. 286-302, reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings ed. Wiener, P.P., Dover, New York, p. 124.

[4] Martin Luther. Sermon on the Duty of Sending Children to School, quoted in Weigle, L.A., The Pupil and the Teacher, Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1911, p. 12.

[5] Weigle, L.A., ibid., pp. 9-13. Boldface and italics are Weigle’s.

Clara and Luther

Get to know your grandparents, and your life will be enlarged. Your life will extend back in time by half a century or so. You’ll gain an expanded perspective, because ideas, even worldviews, change over such a span. If you get a chance to see the world through the eyes of your grandparents and hear about it from their lips, by all means take advantage of the opportunity!

Previously in these blogs I told a story about my father’s parents as an example of will. Now I would like to tell about my mother’s parents.

As a child and teenager I knew very little about my grandfather, Luther A. Weigle. If you asked, I might have answered smartly that he spelled his middle name, Allan, with an “a” rather than an “e.” That is to say, I didn’t know much about him as a thinker.

I felt then that I knew a little more about Grandma, Clara Boxrud Weigle. She mailed sweet birthday greetings to me. She loved all of us deeply, but also expected no-nonsense moral behavior. As we approached their summer home on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire at the end of the long automobile trip from Mississippi, Mama made us hide the comic books we children had been reading along the way, even the Disney comics. “Grandma will take them away from you,” she said.

When we arrived, Grandma hugged us and exclaimed about how big we’d grown, then quickly went to work to keep our schedule moving. Days at Sunapee were filled with swimming, boating, hooking sunfish and sometimes perch or bass, making sand castles, climbing over granite boulders, picking blueberries, hiking through the woods or up Mount Kearsarge.

Each morning we’d find Grandma already up, having made a wood fire in the stove for scrambled eggs or oatmeal. Each evening we got a taste of northern cooking – usually meat, potatoes, sometimes peas in milk, rhubarb that tasted like applesauce, and delicious blueberry, apple, or brown sugar pies. In the evening we might listen to or read by ourselves, instead of comic books, children’s books from 1920s and 1930s, usually with a moralistic tone. More about that in the next blog.  

As happy as memories like these can be, it’s a shame that most of us have so little opportunity to get to know our grandparents’ own hopes, struggles, victories and losses, and their interpretations of those events as they moved through a lifetime. As soon as we are old enough, and if we’re lucky enough to have them still alive, let’s take the time to probe their memories and record their stories.

I had few adult conversations with Luther Weigle and even fewer with Clara Boxrud Weigle, who died when I was a teenager. Fortunately he left a wealth of written material worth examining. He was a minister, a philosophy professor, and a longtime educator whose early interests centered on childhood education, especially the formation of character and will. My mother spoke and wrote about both of her parents.

I’m fascinated by the period of the 1890s and early 1900s when my grandparents were young, a time of intellectual ferment driven by path-breaking science and newborn pragmatism, yet founded on Victorian assumptions of character and will, before those assumptions were shattered by two world wars. What was it like to grow into adulthood during that period?

Are my grandparents appropriate subjects for these blogs? Mama taught me not to brag. But you might perceive that our family’s level of achievement peaked in the last century, bequeathing to me and my generation a downward curve. These stories could be humbling rather than prideful.

Regardless, you should consider someday writing down your family’s stories. The digital age offers incredible opportunities to expand our generational domes. Genealogies should no longer be restricted to names, dates, places, and occupations. Leave something for your children, nieces and nephews, cousins, and future generations to tell them who their forebears were, what they did and said, how they reacted to each other, how they loved, how they sought and found redemption.

In these blogs we discuss the will, but if successful, not the universal, abstract will. Instead it should be my will, or yours, or for these particular blogs, the will as expressed in family stories. These personal stories are the ones I know best, and I hope they may serve as examples of willful life.

Perhaps Clara and Luther Weigle’s giving is not yet complete, although they sustained friendships widely and helped many children besides their own. Their story may still inspire. It might be similar to or different from your forebears or mentors. I’ll be happy to append comments or links to this post.

Without further apology, I’ll mention some highlights of their lives here and then present parts of Grandpa’s advice on childhood education in the next 2 blogs.

Luther Weigle was Pennsylvania “Dutch” or Deutsch, born to parents of German descent in the northeast part of the state. His father Elias was a Lutheran minister, and the family moved often.

When Luther went to Gettysburg College in 1896, he decided to join secretly an organization that his father had expressly forbidden him to join. With some of the money given to him for expenses, Luther paid the dues of the secret society. His deception persisted through 4 years of college and into his first year of seminary in Gettysburg.

Then his conscience broke through. He wrote a long, anxious letter to his father, asking forgiveness and promising to repay the money. His father promptly replied in a telegram:

It is all right. I forgive you. I knew it two days after you did it.

The telegram brought “a flash of illumination” to Luther, teaching him how a child’s responsibility to seek forgiveness can be honored by a parent, though stretching all limits of patience and distress. It corresponded forcefully with what he would learn in seminary.

His years at Gettysburg College had challenged and enlarged Luther’s worldview. By the time he entered seminary in 1900, he would recall, “I was convinced that one could accept the scientific principle of evolution and yet hold to the Christian conception of God and the Christian view of human life.”[1]

He graduated from Gettysburg Seminary in 1902 and enrolled at Yale for further studies in religious philosophy. The following year young Weigle came up for ordination in the Allegheny Synod of the Lutheran denomination. A professor at Gettysburg College, scheduled to deliver his ordination sermon, instead strenuously objected, arguing that the young man’s ordination was premature. Luther’s father had not expected to speak at all, but asked for the privilege of the floor, laid out the case for his son, and gained success in a vote that was unanimous save one. His father also preached the ordination sermon. From him Luther received “laying on of hands.”

How much might I have learned when I was young, if I ever had discussed evolution with my grandfather or discussed the battles of societal upheaval and institutional resistance!

But by that time my parents had agreed not to debate science and religion in front of the children. The turmoil of the sixties occupied my teenage years, and time was short on our family visits from Mississippi to New England. Grandpa did not push his ideas upon me, and I rarely thought to ask his opinion.

As a young adult Luther Weigle spent a summer teaching at Mississippi College, a Baptist school in the town of Clinton near Jackson. A fellow teacher told him that a person should not consider the day warm unless he could put the smooth side of his forearm down on a piece of paper and pick up the paper. To break the enervating succession of hot days and nights, Luther would play his banjo, sometimes joining groups of students in evening songfests.

On July Fourth, Luther walked onto a small pavilion with his banjo. He planned to lead a celebration of reconciliation – both Southern and Northern songs. Passing students grimaced, turned their heads, and walked away.

He then learned that the city of Vicksburg had fallen to General Grant on July 4; the day would not be celebrated at Mississippi College. Luther decided against singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Instead he sang “Boola-boola, down the field” about Yale football and closed the show.

In his academic career, Luther cultivated strong interests in Horace Bushnell’s Christian nurture including “emancipation of the child,” in the new field of psychology as taught by William James, and in childhood development according to John Mason Tyler and others. Luther moved from New Haven in 1905 to join the faculty of Carleton College in Minnesota as a youthful professor and head of the philosophy department. A history of Carleton reported that “Weigle was not only young in age when he came here, but looked even younger. He got along very well with the students, being welcomed as an honorary member of several student organizations, playing tennis with the young people and singing in the glee club.”[2]

Clara Boxrud grew up in Minnesota riding horses in summer and reading books in winter. Her cultural heritage mixed Norse folk tales and strict Protestant theology, as her grandparents had emigrated from Norway.

My mother wrote about Clara and Luther’s initial meeting and first date:

I never tired of hearing how you and Mother met and courted. You were a young professor at Carleton. It was registration day in September 1906. Clara Rosetta Boxrud had spent her junior year at Wellesley, but, fortunately for the course of these events, Wellesley would not accept all of her high school credits, insisting upon an additional year to complete college requirements. Being an independent young woman, Mother simply returned to Carleton to graduate with her class of 1907. There she was, with those sky-blue eyes, asking whether she might take your course in Christian Ethics. “I wanted to tell her she could take anything she liked with me,” you’d always say with a grin.

Because it was not deemed proper for a faculty member to single out one of his students, you waited until the year was nearly over before you asked her to accompany you to a literary society dinner. She accepted, but, oh disaster, in clumsy eagerness you let her slip off the boardwalk into the mud, bedraggling the new gown and feather boa! Still, you were a persistent chap.[3]

A year later, Luther spent 2 months of the summer in Europe traveling with his father. In Rome he bought a pearl necklace for Clara. Again in the words of their daughter:

Upon returning, you went to the little Minnesota town where she was teaching school and surprised her with the pearls. “Oh, Luther,” she exclaimed, flushing with excitement, “they are so beautiful! How can I ever thank you? I’m just going to give you a great big – a great big – handshake!” You didn’t get that kiss until you’d proposed and been accepted.[4]

Despite advice from her mother that she was too young at age 23, Clara Boxrud married Luther Weigle on June 15, 1909. The header image for this blog shows them at their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrated with their 4 children, spouses, and 19 grandchildren.


Next post:  The Pupil and The Teacher

Previous post:  Free Will: An Exercise

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home


Header image:  Clara and Luther Weigle at their 50th wedding anniversary in 1959. Family photo.

[1] Weigle, L.A. The Religious Education of a Protestant. Reprinted in Weigle, R.D. The Glory Days: From the Life of Luther Allan Weigle. Friendship Press, New York, 1976, p. 15.

[2] Northfield News, September 9, 2005. “As dean, Weigle causes Carleton life to run smoothly.” URL:, accessed 10/2/2016.

[3] Guyton, R.W. Love Letter. Reprinted in Weigle, R.D. The Glory Days: From the Life of Luther Allan Weigle. Friendship Press, New York, 1976, pp. 110-111.

[4] Ibid.

Free Will: An Exercise

I do not know if free will really exists. I’m agnostic about it. Likewise, if you are honest, you do not know whether or not free will exists.

Here as promised in the preceding blog is an exercise – a kind of thought experiment – that might help to clarify our thinking.[1]

The exercise begins with the admission that I do not know if free will exists. If it does exist, then I do not know how it can be reconciled with what would appear to be the biochemical causation of all the thoughts in my mind. And yet, I do not see myself as a set of biochemical responses, as if I were an external observer of the input and output. I am somehow in the midst of those responses – such is the extent of my ignorance.

One thing I might be able to decide, however, is whether or not I believe in free will. Indeed, I might choose to believe in free will, if I think that such a choice seems justified. Justification of the belief does not require proof of the fact of free will, but only a clear sense that believing is preferred to withholding belief.

With that preamble, the following four alternatives can be presented:

  1. I believe in free will, and it exists.
  2. I believe in free will, and it does not exist.
  3. I withhold belief in free will, and it does not exist.
  4. I withhold belief in free will, and it exists.

The actual choice, of course, is whether to believe (Alternatives 1 and 2 accepted together) or to withhold belief (Alternatives 3 and 4 together). Listing four rather than two possibilities should help to clarify the decision.

Alternatives 1 and 3 can be dispensed with rather quickly, since in each belief accords with reality, and so belief is justified. The balance of decision hinges upon an adequate apprehension of Alternatives 2 and 4. Only if one of these appears justified, and the other not, can one make an overall determination about whether belief is preferable to nonbelief, or vice versa.

The second alternative is – I Believe in Free Will, and It Does Not Exist. There are two ways to look at this proposition. One is to set up the hypothesis that belief in free will is harmless, even if that belief does not accord with reality. The evidence favoring this hypothesis is that people appear to assume free will in the daily course of life and even in the midst of such major nonphilosophical decisions as choosing a spouse or a career. Conversation and other communication between persons also appear to assume an ordinary belief in free will. Practically the only fields in which free will seems to be denied are philosophy and psychology, and latter often makes therapeutic use of the patient’s belief in her free will. The fact that belief in free will is so prevalent does not necessarily mean that it is really, noumenally true, but it may mean that the belief is at least harmless.

On the other hand, some might argue that belief in free will actually can lead to harm, because such a belief presupposes belief in the human soul – a spiritual entity – and all the harm ascribed to religion may then be recalled. This argument is a rather indirect one and probably can be countered on several points, including the notion of exactly what is meant by a “soul,” but I prefer to leave it to you to decide at leisure. Suffice it to say that the hypothesis of the harmlessness of belief in free will is not as self-evident as it initially seems.

There is another way of looking at Alternative 2, a way which is considerably more attractive to me. It is to suggest that if free will does not exist, then all of my beliefs can be none other than what they are. It follows that my belief in free will, like all other beliefs, is justified in the same way that anything at all is justified in a world without free will. It simply happens. Just as there is no use in wishing “it might have been” or in hoping “it might be” in such a world, so also there is no meaning in saying “I choose this over that,” as if alternative courses of life exist as possibilities to choose among, because choice and consequently the alternative possibilities of choice are denied. Thus there is no value to be preferred in one happening as compared to any other. Everything that happens is real and has the same value of reality; all else is unreal and has no value at all. The key is to recognize that belief in free will is itself a happening. If it happens, therefore, it has value, and so is justified.

Objection: There is more than a trace of circular reasoning in this argument to justify belief in free will. For justification – and the word is used here in the sense of preferring any particular belief over an alternative – absolutely depends upon the existence of free will. Then that concept of justification is applied to the question of belief in free will. The result is inevitable – and meaningless.

Answer:  I plead guilty to the commission of circularity, but not to the meaninglessness of it. Basically I said that if human beliefs cannot be chosen, then no single belief can be justified to a greater extent than any other. In this manner, the definition of justification was linked to the definition of free will. In fact, both are linked to my own concept of personhood, the definition of “I.” Nevertheless, this linkage of definitions and the consequent circular reasoning do not make my belief in free will meaningless. They only make the initial suspension of that belief, the feigning that an honest question was being asked, suspicious. My belief in free will has meaning because it is a continuing habit – a personal truth. It is axiomatic for my life, and the criticism of circular reasoning does not apply to axioms. This may become more clear if we continue with the exercise.

Proceeding with the exercise:  The fourth alternative is – I Withhold Belief in Free Will, Yet It Exists. The task in this case is to determine whether a lack of belief in free will can or cannot be justified, if indeed free will exists and is operative. Strangely, this fourth alternative seems much more puzzling to me than the second. It is relatively easy (though suspicious) to posit that free will may not exist, but I find it extraordinarily difficult to pretend that I do not believe in it.

The first impulse is to say that the fourth alternative is tragic. Indeed it amounts to a disavowal of responsibility for our own actions. Arthur Schopenhauer, as we see in a later blog, suggested, but did not claim to prove, that the innate sense of responsibility, which he felt to be present in all human beings, might represent a demonstration of free will.[2] A proof of free will based on the innate sense of responsibility, if ever achieved, would actually make it acceptable to positivists by satisfying the requirement of universal and abiding agreement of reasonable people. Schopenhauer’s suggestion of an argument along these lines is probably the best available. However, neither he nor any person can be sure that all people actually share the sense of responsibility to which some persons give testimony.

I raise the possibility that certain persons may have so meager a sense of responsibility, that to argue from responsibility to free will is futile. At least, we cannot know what constitutes the sense of responsibility in all people. Does this claim tend toward elitism or toward a doctrine of the elect? That is something to be discussed elsewhere, not here. For the present, we should simply recognize an element of uncertainty that thwarts Schopenhauer’s suggestion. Free will is not a demonstrable fact. Disbelief in free will might indeed be tragic, but we cannot honestly call it stupid.

But is a lack of belief in free will even tragic, if free will indeed exists? Our tendency to think so may be due mostly to religious undercurrents stirring beneath the surface of conscious thought. Religious issues – the existence of the soul, God’s approval of our choices, rewards for choosing good and rejecting evil – can strongly supply emotions that drive our thinking. The point to be made here is that a belief in free will, stripped bare of spiritual and afterworld trappings, does not seem nearly so loaded with the potential for victory or tragedy as it does with those accessories added.

Seeing then that belief in free will is a question for personal decision, and proposing to consider it apart from the burden of eternal destiny, what becomes of our viewpoint on the fourth alternative? Let me offer this for your consideration:  Belief in free will itself becomes a matter of personal choice. If free will really does exist, then it follows that the choosing of all our beliefs is real. This includes the choosing of belief in free will. If this is the case, then the fourth alternative cannot be discredited. One can indeed choose to disbelieve in that which makes choosing possible. Lack of belief in free will can be justified on the basis of the very existence and operation of free will, and not merely in spite of these.

That is the exercise. I have demonstrated nothing, except that the available evidence does not compel a person to either belief or nonbelief in free will. You must decide for yourself, must discover the answer your own heart would give. Something in the discussion might have struck a chord of recognition and resonance in your mind. If so, accept that chord as valid. Look at the alternatives again.

  1. I believe in free will, and it exists.
  2. I believe in free will, and it does not exist.
  3. I withhold belief in free will, and it does not exist.
  4. I withhold belief in free will, and it exists.

It might be that the fourth alternative seems a horror and the second merely a happy delusion. These responses would suggest that believing in free will could indeed become a continuing habit – a personal truth – for you. Moreover, this belief is justified. On the other hand, you may be troubled most of all by an undertone, a recurring echo in the background of the discussion that says repeatedly, “I cannot know.” To which the mind adds its chosen premise, “If I cannot know, then I shall not believe.” This too can form a continuing habit, a personal truth, and can be justified.


Next post:  Clara and Luther

Previous post:  Pragmatic Free Will for Individuals and Groups

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Header image: CC0 Public Domain Pixabay from Farmgirlmiriam

[1] I am slightly modifying this exercise from an unfinished book I wrote around 20 years ago, hopefully to be presented in full at some future time.

[2] Schopenhauer, A. On the Freedom of the Will. Transl. Kolenda, K. London, Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 93-95.

Pragmatic Free Will for Individuals and Groups

If 5 rules for GSOT apply, then free will pragmatically works. It sounds right, but does the conclusion follow?

The 5 rules are as follows:

Rule #1.  Every sentence is first-person in its origin.

Rule #2.  The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.

Rule #3.  Unless it makes a difference in somebody’s disposition to act, then it makes no difference.

Rule #4.  Break these rules.

Rule #5.  Get back to the rules.

This blog series, Searching for GSOT, has tried to affirm human free will in the context of the 5 rules shown above. Up to now, however, we have not made free will a primary focus of inquiry. It’s time now to launch an extended discussion aimed at free will. To begin, let me recall a few key points made earlier.

The first encounter with free will in this series came in the second blog about positivism. It took shape as a personal testimony, as follows:

Science or faith? Would I follow in the path of my father, a path that I partially recognized had attracted some of the best minds of the era, or would I accept the faith of my mother?

But where in the scientific realm of positivist thinking was the mechanism that allowed me to make a choice at all? Are we only observers of the events that describe our lives, events that answer only to reproducibly defined stimuli, responses, and genetic traits? I pushed back against that thought. Science, I pondered, might not be the only way to gain knowledge, especially the knowledge of who I am and what I want.

I began to think that the deepest feelings and commitments that steer the course of our lives are mostly unscientific. My father would have said that evolution put the feelings and commitments inside of us. In his absence now, I ask different questions and observe that the process by which each learns about his own passion is not scientific at all.

One way to define “will” is the process by which each person learns about his or her own passion. Note how intimate the process appears to be, how connected with first-person pronouns I and me.

In the second blog on fundamentalism, the question of free will in groups of people received a tentative affirmation –

Is free will – if it exists at all – vested also in families, tribes, cultures, and not merely in individual people? I think that free will operates in groups as well as individuals. My identity is not merely an individual identity. I am bound to and lifted up by my wife, my family, my region and country, my community of faith that crosses borders, as well as other people of passion and will crossing boundaries of faith, and finally humanity and the world to which human eyes open in wonder. The operation of will may occur in all of these, enlarging my own small will immensely.

It is wrong, I believe, to tie our speculations about free will solely to the individual person. I am influenced here by the discussion of ontologic individualism in the remarkable book, Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah and colleagues.[1] Ontologic individualism is an assertion that the individual person has real existence (being) in whatever way a thinker conceives of real existence, coupled with a denial that groups of people have that kind of existence.

Ontologic individualism is certainly the rule among Americans. Consider that the average American believes in God and believes in the individual soul. Think about asking about a group of people – say, a group that forms a church, or even the group comprising all the citizens of the United States – does this group of people have a (corporate) soul? The typical American would say that a church or citizens of the U.S.A. have a soul only in a metaphorical sense. Only an individual person has a soul that really exists.

From the basic belief in ontologic individualism follows a conclusion that relationships among people consist only of spatial, temporal, genetic, experiential, and cultural similarities, and the communications and negotiations that pass between people aggregated according to those similarities.

Bellah and colleagues argue against ontologic individualism. The existence of the individual person may be real, but it is no more real than the existence of a group. Pertinent to our discussion is the idea that both individuals and groups provide venues for the operation of will.  I have tried to provide a schematic of this idea through the image of “intersecting and expanding domes” within which will presents.

A full argument connecting will with both individuals and groups is beyond the scope of the present blog. I suggest reading Habits of the Heart. My reasons shall be developed further in some blogs to come.

In the 3rd blog under Rule #1, Every sentence is first-person, I tried to show how differently an exploration of free will may proceed if that exploration is expressed in first-person speech, as opposed to the usual manner of expressing it in objective, third-person terms. The usual third-person attempt falls into a circular argument that is recognized to prove nothing. The first-person exploration finds meaning in the fact that the question continues to be asked, and the exploration continues.

A connection between free will and pragmatism dawned and seemed to clarify as the blogs on pragmatism proceeded. One way of stating the core principle of pragmatism could be “Truth that does not influence human decision is truth that makes no difference.” Of course, truth so conceived, lacking influence on human decision, must be noumenal truth in the Kantian sense.[2] But such truth, which makes no difference, will never be recognized by a person or group who remain in the actual human condition. Therefore, claims of truth that negate the possibility of human decision-making must be false claims. These false claims come from the perspective of a person or group standing apart from the human condition, usually a wannabe-universal perspective of positivism based on a demand for agreement among all persons “sufficiently trained in the discipline[s] of interest.”

The brief argument in the preceding paragraph is highly self-referential. I hope that through the course of this series you might have come to the conclusion, as I have, that we must come to terms with self-referencing logic. It is wrong to try to escape it. Your job or my job is to decide whether it fits your/my present complex of inheritance, experience, and desires, or…may I say it?…your or my will. Moreover, the argument need not claim to prove the existence of will in an ontologic sense. It should merely strive to justify my will or yours as an operator sufficient for making responsible choices in our lives. That is a goal of upcoming blogs.

In the next blog I’ll present an exercise – a kind of thought experiment – that might move the analysis forward.


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Header image:  3 oranges and a mango in a wooden bowl. Own photo. CC0 Public Domain.

[1] Bellah, R.N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W.M., Swidler, A., Tipton, S.M. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. New York, Harper & Row, pp. 143, 244, 334. Copyright 1985 by Regents of the University of California.

[2] Noumenal truth according to Kant means what is really true, but is not accessible to human apprehension. Phenomenal truth is that which is perceived through the senses and/or recognized by a priori modes of thought that define, for example, mathematics.