Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The problem of the freedom of the will, like many of the traditional issues, remains a problem for many philosophers because of the manner of its formulation. Even determining the appropriate question is difficult. Is it whether the will is free? Or is it how the will is free? Or is it a question as to what the will is? Or freedom? Does it even make sense to talk about the will as free? A person can be free, but what is the sense of saying that the will—whatever that is—can be free? Or is the question whether the will is free or determined?

Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan philosopher of the eighteenth century, taking his cue from John Locke, whose An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he admired, recognized the difficulties involved in the formulation of the problem. Consequently, his careful study of the problem begins with explanations of the terms involved in discourse concerning freedom of the will; he begins with “will” and proceeds to “determination,” “necessity,” “liberty,” and other terms whose ambiguity and vagueness have made the problem a particularly troublesome one for philosophers. Also unlike many philosophers, Edwards did not use the occasion of definition as an opportunity for framing the problem to suit his own purposes. With analytic acumen, he hit on the meanings relative to common use, and he clarified those meanings without neglecting consideration of the function of terms in conventional discourse. Thus, in considering “liberty,” he noted that, “in the ordinary use of language,” the words “freedom” and “liberty” mean the “power, opportunity, or advantage, that anyone has, to do as he pleases.”

In recognizing that to be free is to be able to do as one pleases, Edwards prepared the way for his next point, that it is nonsense to talk about the will as free. It is nonsense because the will is not an agent, not a person who is somehow able to do as he or she pleases. Thus, Edwards wrote, “It will follow, that in propriety of speech, neither liberty, nor its contrary can properly be ascribed to any being or thing, but that which has such a faculty, power or property, as is called will.’” It makes sense to talk about a free person, for a person can be in a condition of being able to do as he or she pleases, but it violates “propriety of speech” to talk about a free will, as if a will could do as it pleased, could act as it wills.

If, then, to have free will is to be able to do as one wills, and if the will, the power of choice, is determined by the apparent values of the alternatives brought to the attention of the person, it follows that free will is determined: An individual, who is able to choose, is free if, when his or her choice is determined by various considerations, he or she can do as he or she pleases. If this is the resolution of the problem—and, except for introducing the careful definitions, the arguments, and the qualifications, this is the essential resolution as Edwards presents it—then it is apparent that the formulation of the problem is misleading. It is misleading to consider the “freedom of the will,” as if the will were an agent, capable of doing as it willed, and it is misleading to take the problem as the one put by the question, “Is the will free or is it determined?”—as if the alternatives were incompatible. Edwards deserves credit not only for resolving the problem in a manner that continues to win the admiration of professional philosophers but also for making his method clear: the method of destroying a problem by clarifying its formulation.

A Strict Calvinist

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Edwards was a vigorous defender of Calvinism, a minister who was an effective combination of intellectual and emotional power. As minister at Northampton, Massachusetts, he argued for predestination, the depravity of man, and the doctrine of irresistible grace. He held with Puritan fervor to the conviction that God is unlimited in his use of grace; he can save whomever he chooses. In support...

(The entire section is 3,165 words.)