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Further readinglocked

  • Published in print: 24 June 2004
  • Published online: 24 September 2013


A useful collection of articles is Free Will, edited by Gary Watson (Oxford University Press, 1982; 2nd edn., 2003) in the Oxford Readings in Philosophy series.The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane (Oxford University Press, 2002) contains articles on every area of the contemporary debate.For further reading on past theories of action from Plato and Aristotle onwards see Thomas Pink and Martin Stone (eds.), The Will and Human Action: From Antiquity to the Present Day (Routledge, 2003).

Ancient philosophy

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics contains a notable ancient discussion of action and moral responsibility. There are many modern English editions. Interesting modern discussions of Aristotle include Necessity, Cause and Blame by Richard Sorabji (Duckworth, 1980) and Ethics with Aristotle by Sarah Broadie (Oxford University Press, 1991).

Much of later Greek thought now survives in somewhat fragmentary form. A very useful collection with excerpts from ancient texts and some critical discussion is The Hellenistic Philosophers, edited by A. A. Long and D.N. Sedley (Cambridge University Press, 1987 – in two volumes, the first containing translations, the second containing original Greek texts). The collection covers problems to do with free will as well as many other areas of philosophy. Along with Aristotle's Ethics, Stoic theories of action exercised a profound influence on medieval thought. They are discussed in Brad Inwood's Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (Oxford University Press, 1985). A challenging but very interesting recent discussion of Stoic views of moral responsibility and freedom is Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy by Suzanne Bobzien (Oxford University Press, 1998). One fundamental figure in late antiquity is St Augustine. His writings on freedom and the will are extensive, but their precise interpretation much disputed. A central text is De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Choice). This can be found in a recent English translation by Thomas Williams (Hackett, 1993).

Medieval and Renaissance philosophy

A central figure in the 13th century is Thomas Aquinas. One very important discussion by him of action and freedom is to be found in the Summa Theologiae, his overview of theology and of related areas in philosophy. This extensive work is divided into three parts, and the second part deals with humans as rational beings. This second part is further subdivided into two. The first of these, the Prima Secundae, contains in questions 6–17 an immensely interesting and detailed discussion of human action – a discussion that has been the object of much study and commentary ever since. This discussion can be read in a useful multivolume dual Latin and English text edition prepared in the 1960s by the Dominican Fathers (Aquinas's own teaching order). The relevant volume is 17, The Psychology of Human Acts edited by Thomas Gilby (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964). Modern discussions of Aquinas on action include Ralph McInerny's Aquinas on Action (Catholic University of America Press, 1992), and Right Practical Reason by Daniel Westberg (Oxford University Press, 1994). A key thinker of the 14th century is John Duns Scotus. A useful collection of his writings on the will and action, with critical discussion, is Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality by Allan Wolter (Catholic University of America Press, 1986). For a detailed discussion of medieval theories and a comparison of them with Hobbes see my ‘Suarez, Hobbes, and the Scholastic Tradition in Action Theory’, in Pink and Stone (eds.), The Will and Human Action.For Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion I have used the edition by McNeill and Battles in the Library of Christian Classics (Westminster Press, 1960). Those interested in Reformation disputes should also read the controversy between Luther and Erasmus, available under the title Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation edited by E. Gordon Rupp and P. S. Watson (SCM Press, 1969).

Hobbes, Hume, and Kant

Central to understanding Hobbes on free will is his debate with Bishop Bramhall, published in London in 1656 as The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance. Bramhall was the Anglican bishop of Derry, and shared an exile with Hobbes in Paris during the Civil Wars. In this debate Bramhall represented the will-based medieval scholastic tradition, and gave an account of human action and its freedom that owed much to thinkers such as Aquinas and Scotus. Hobbes's criticism was acerbic and deeply influential. I am working on a modern edition of The Questions for the new Clarendon edition of the works of Hobbes. Part of Hobbes's contribution to the debate exists separately under the title Of Liberty and Necessity. Excerpts from this work and from other of Hobbes's writings are to be found in British Moralists 1650–1800, edited by D. D. Raphael (Hackett, 1991). Worth reading is the discussion of action and the passions at the beginning of Hobbes's great political work Leviathan (see the beginning chapters, and especially chapter 6), edited by R. Tuck (Cambridge University Press, 1996). See also my paper on Hobbes and the medieval tradition mentioned above. An account of action and freedom that is more complex than Hobbes's, but which clearly owes more than it admits to him, is to be found in book 2, chapter 21, ‘Of power’ in John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding – see the edition by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford University Press, 1975). Modern English-language Compatibilism owes much to David Hume. An important statement of his views is to be found in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section 8, ‘Of Liberty and Necessity‘ – see the edition by L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford University Press, 1975). Hume's scepticism regarding our knowledge and experience of causation is stated in the preceding section 7 of the Enquiry entitled ‘Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion’. The interpretation of Hume on causation is disputed – see The Sceptical Realism of David Hume by John P. Wright (Manchester University Press, 1983) and Galen Strawson's The Secret Connexion (Oxford University Press, 1989). Central to understanding Kant on action and freedom, and on morality generally, is his Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals (see, for example, the translation by H. J. Paton, Harper & Row, 1964). But Kant's views are complex and changed over time, even within his mature system. One useful discussion is Henry E. Allison's Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

The modern debate

There have been countless statements of Compatibilism within the modern English-language tradition. For a short paper, see A. J. Ayer's ‘Freedom and Necessity’, in the first edition of the Gary Watson collection on Free Will and in Ayer's Philosophical Essays (New York, 1954); and for a book, Daniel Dennett's Elbow Room (MIT Press, 1984). A subtle argument around the place of blame and resentment in human life is Peter Strawson's ‘Freedom and Resentment’, in the Gary Watson collection. Susan Wolf explores the rationalist view that free will and responsibility are to be identified with the capacity to act rationally in her Freedom within Reason (Oxford University Press, 1990). For the sceptical position see Galen Strawson's ‘The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility’, in the Gary Watson collection, and also his Freedom and Belief (Oxford University Press, 1986). Harry Frankfurt argues for basing moral responsibility on voluntariness rather than freedom in his ‘Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility’, to be found in a collection of his papers The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge University Press, 1988). A prominent recent defence of Libertarianism is Robert Kane's The Significance of Free Will (Oxford University Press, 1998). There is a good overview of recent libertarian theories in Randolph Clarke's Libertarian Accounts of Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2003). Both these books argue for positions rather different from my own. My own views on freedom and action are developed further in my The Ethics of Action: Action and Self-Determination (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). A companion volume The Ethics of Action: Action and Normativity, will discuss the place of action within morality, and in particular the nature of moral obligation.

The literature on the free will problem is enormous, and there is no possibility of providing anything like a comprehensive guide to it here. I have simply picked out a small number of representative works.