Will: The Force, not the Person (Part 1)

I’m thinking about the role of Will in history.  Who isn’t, you might ask?  We’ve all read Nietzsche, right?

Actually most people have not read Nietzsche, nor does reading Nietzsche assist everyone in understanding Will, specifically the Will to Power.  I grew up in a small town, where education even today is not what it is in places like Evanston or Westwood or Palo Alto or any other university town.  I went to university with a lot of kids who grew up in places where education was more thorough.  People from El Paso or Sherman Oaks or the Bronx had had routine experience with computers and programming.  They had studied a bit of logic.  All of that was foreign to me.

I had heard of philosophy.  I learned that it existed when I was 13 and first opened a university catalogue.  I was planning to go to university, not just college (I had figured out the difference).  As I thumbed through the catalogues borrowed from a middle school teacher, three fields of study stood out to me as possible majors:  English, anthropology and philosophy.  I had never heard of either anthropology or philosophy until then.  I used the college catalogues to plan my trips to our local library.  I could see the names listed as great writers or thinkers in the introductory courses in English and philosophy.  It was in this way that I encountered Socrates and Plato.  Had it not been for those university catalogues (which I continued to pore over all through high school), I would doubtless have gone off to University as clueless about Plato and Aristotle as I was about Karl Marx.

When in the first few weeks of university, a teacher kept mentioning Marx, I knew only of the Marx brothers, and I was pretty sure that the teacher wasn’t referring to the entertainer; within a week after the first mention I was in the library, searching for Marx – it took awhile for me to connect Marx up to the Communist Manifesto, I encountered his piece on German Ideology first, but within 10 days of hearing his name for the first time, I had a glimmer of who he was – I considered him a philosopher at that time.  Similarly, when I first heard of Lenin, I thought that teacher was speaking of John Lennon – that took longer to figure out (spelling through me off).  There were no “For Dummies” books back then, and our university bookstore wasn’t the kind of place where Cliff Notes were prominently displayed, but they did have a great section for public consumption and my self-education in philosophy began in earnest.

Nietzsche, however, eluded me.  I tried to read him.  I couldn’t get through enough philosophy courses to get formal instruction in Nietzsche.  Our introduction to philosophy teacher, John Mothershead, was an expert in aesthetics and Kant.  He did not cover Nietzsche, but he did introduce us to Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and we ended the course with Hegel.  

When I ultimately became an anthropology major, it was natural for my professors to assign some Engels and Marx (both had views on primitive society, primitive socialism and of course, class), and mention was often made of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but we were not assigned to read those two.    Clearly every educated person knew something about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, so I attempted to read them.

I knew the concept of Will was important to Nietzsche, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly was meant by the word.  I had heard all manner of arguments about Free Will, of course (that, at least had been introduced to me in the protestant church discussions of my youth, and elaborated on in by Prof. Mothershead).  Power I could understand to some degree.  But Will, in and of itself, eluded me as a concept.  Years later, I would meet and get to know an actual philosopher very well, and he explained it to me.  It turned out it was quite simple.  Things always seem simpler when you have a good teacher.

Will is the desire or conception within the human mind to get something done, to make something happen.  It is motivation, it is the force of mind.  It is stronger when it is conscious, but unconscious aspects of will must be considered in a proper exploration of will.

Nietzsche clearly thinks that this force of the human mind is important to history, and it surely is.

Many questions arose in my mind once I realized that will is akin to motivation, power of belief, and, well, stubbornness or even arrogance:  strong intentions to accomplish one’s own…will.

First, I tried to find out more about the psychology of motivation and learned that psychologists, around the years 2005-6, were just then coming to terms with how to study motivation, an elusive pattern or process within the human mind.  Psychologists deal with both unmotivated and motivated human beings in clinical settings, and everyone knows that unless a person is motivated (has the will) to change, they aren’t going to change much.  Even if they are apparently motivated, they might not be able to accomplish a change.  Addiction studies, rehab, etc., all deal with such issues daily; in ordinary therapeutic transactions, will is at issue.  Experimental psychology still has a long way to go in figuring out how to study motivation.  Functional MRI’s and other measurements of brain activity are only somewhat promising in trying to figure out what sorts of energy patterns occur in the brain when a person really wants to do something.  Chess players, for example, who are trying very hard (willing themselves) to win a game, exhibit high activity in their finger motor cortex, and in the frontal lobes related to spatial reasoning and general reasoning, but little else distinguishes them from a person watching television (a person who must have the will to watch television?)  How could a brain state, like will, be distinguishable physiologically from any other brain state?  Isn’t will always present?

Apparently not.  For example, many people show up in clinical settings with the complaint that unwanted feelings or thoughts are in their heads.  They wish to will those thoughts and feelings (often depression) away, but the thoughts and feelings keep coming back.  This is usually regarded as a jointly biochemical and cognitive problem, and most psychiatrists and psychologists believe that the biochemical issue (often serotonin levels) should be addressed early on, and that cognitive-behavioral therapy as an adjunct will help eliminate the unwanted thoughts.  This does work in many people.

But people will themselves to commit suicide, to kill one another, and to do many other problematic behaviors just as surely as they will themselves to take care of their children, to feed the dog and to water the houseplants.

It can easily be said that some people’s wills are stronger than others (they will themselves to do more difficult or unusual tasks) and it is at this point that,  as an anthropologist, I want to pull in a structural (social structural) analysis.

Some people are in a position, in society, to be able to more easily accomplish their will.  And some actions are much more easily accomplished within a given society, because society provides the means to do so.  The rules, structures and mechanisms of social control within a society all play a role in the ease of accomplishing one’s will.  So, if in today’s Great Britain, one wills that another person be dead and decides to act upon that will by murder, they will have a harder time getting a gun to do so than a person living in the United States.  A person in Arizona, where people are allowed to openly carry handguns in public, will have an easier time shooting their congresswoman than an Ilongot in the highlands of the Phillipines (where guns are virtually non-existent, but the technical means of head-hunting are available).

So, isolating sheer will remains difficult on the anthropological and psychological fronts.  A person might have a strong will to do something, but lack the means to do so.  Often, as it turns out, a collective will to do something is important, and understanding collective will is a bit trickier.  Certainly

If we look at the Occupy movement, it appears to be predicated on collective will, and specifically avoids having A Leader to round it up.  The problem with having A Leader is that it rapidly becomes difficult to distinguish between the collective will and the leader’s will.  If people agree to assign some of their individual will over to another person, which is what happens in the leadership structure, it is hard to know when (and how) to get one’s individual will back.  In formal military structures, soldiers agree and vow to ignore their own will in favor of the next highest leader’s will, until the will of the person at the top of a chain of command is accomplished.  Naturally, most people analyze history in terms of who the real leaders are (whose will gets accomplished) in these hierarchical military settings.  Soldiers can and do mutiny, individually or collectively, or exercise will in ways that are counter to The Leader’s will, but they have frequently agreed not to do so.

If, on the other hand, a collective chooses A Leader who embodies their collective will more or less perfectly, then it may be possible to use the efficiency of a hierarchical structure to accomplish the collective will.  This is how many revolutions start out, and unfortunately, the same system that transfers individual will to A Leader still holds:  it is still difficult for the individual to know when to opt out of the movement, and The Leader may still have power to do as he or she pleases, even if many of the individuals opt out of the movement.

The leaderless front of the Occupy Movement, therefore, is attempting to keep this situation from arising.  In that way, it is an historic, conscious movement that attempts to preserve individual will.   This leads to a different structure of power.  Criticisms leveled at the Occupy Movement have included that fact that not all members share the same stated ideas about what should happen; they do, however, share the will to Occupy.  The fact that the movement is so centered upon this shared will is crucial to understanding it.  They may not agree entirely on what they want, but they know they strongly want something.  As the movement as progressed, two central sets of demands are emerging:  Tax the 1% who control the vast majority of wealth and resources at a higher rate, and Save Education.  These are perfectly reasonable goals, and there are probably very few Occupy members who individually will otherwise.

In my next post, I am going to look at a radically different sort of situation, historical situations in which one person became the embodiment of the will of a people or, alternatively, one person imposed their individual will on a group of people (it’s very hard to discern the difference, even in contemporary movements).  These are the kinds of situations Nietzsche had in mind, and so, in a sense, I’m doing a kind of Nietzschean anthropology of the past.