Friday, November 26, 2004

Notes on Blondel #1: Necessity of Action; Willing Will vs. Willed Will

Maurice Blondel was just a name to me until 28 May 1998 when, in a Mesa, Arizona used bookstore, I stumbled upon James M. Somerville’s Total Commitment: Blondel’s L’Action (Washington: Corpus Books, 1968). Somerville’s book, a delightful first-edition find for which I paid a paltry $5.00, is quite good, and I’ve read almost all of it. But it was just a few days ago that I began slogging through the tome on which the former is a commentary, namely, Blondel’s Action (1893): Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice, tr. O. Blanchette (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). Herewith, a first batch of notes and critical/interpretive commentary. They are to be consumed cum grano salis: Blondel is a slippery Frenchman and I am not sure that I have quite grasped his terminology, methods, and intentions. So far I am up to p. xxx + 36. Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the Blanchette translation.

Caveats to one side, Action appears to be a great work by a neglected philosopher. I know that I must work through the whole of it, for the good of my soul even if to the detriment of my eyes, blogging as I proceed. It appears to combine a fair degree of rigor with seriousness of intent. The opening line is magnificent: "Yes or no, does human life make sense, and does man have a destiny?" ( 3)

Action is a necessity, not a fact. (4) What Blondel means, I think, is that one must act. Even inaction is a mode of action, a privative mode of action. I am free to will this or that; I am not free to will not to will. I must will; it is my nature to be a willing being, a nature over which I have no control. To say that action is not a fact is to say that it is not a contingent fact.

I assume that Blondel is not confusing the conditional necessity of action given that there are actors (agents) with the absolute necessity of their being agents. There might not have been any (finite) agents; but given that there are agents as a matter of contingent fact, these agents have the property of being agents essentially. To put the point in’possible worlds’ jargon: I don’t exist in every metaphysically possible world, but in every such world in which I do exist, I act. Of course, this is not the way Blondel puts the point.

Question: Are action and will equivalent concepts for Blondel? It seems that I cannot act without willing to act (e.g., I cannot replace the brakepads on my mountain bike without willing to replace them). Is it also true that I cannot will without acting? What if my will to do X is thwarted and does not issue in a (physical) action? Is willing itself an action, a mental action?

There is a crucial distinction in Blondel between volonte voulante and volonte voulue, between willing will and willed will. So far, however, the distinction has not been explained adequately.

Perhaps the distinction is as follows. The willing will is the will that is not in my power. I can will this or that, but I cannot will not to will. I cannot will myself out of my nature as a willing being. The willing will is the will as necessary. The willed will, by contrast, is the will congealed in freely chosen objects of willing. The willed will is the will as free. Suppose I freely choose A over B (e.g., I choose to blog rather than work in the yard). By freely choosing A, I not only will A, I will my willing of A: I will that my willing will be specified by (congeal around) action A. Willing, as a form of consciousness, has a reflexive structure: to will X is simultaneously and en parergo (Aristotle), nebenbei (Brentano) to will one’s willing of X just as to be contemplatively aware of X is to be simultaneously aware of one’s awareness of X. Now Blondel hasn’t come out and said this so far, but I suspect something like this to be going on between the lines.

If this interpretation is right, it explains the curious phrase, ‘willed willing.’ One might think that when one wills to do X, it is X, or the being done of X, that is willed, and not the willing. But that is not quite accurate since it is not merely the being done of X that is willed but X’s being done by my doing. Thus while running that 10K yesterday, I had the standing will to finish the race without stopping or slowing down no matter how great the pain. What I willed was not merely my finishing the race without slowing down, but my finishing the race without slowing down precisely as a result of my doing/willing (as opposed to as a result of some external factor such as a huge tailwind).

Thus willing has a double aspect: it is a willing of something external to the agent, as one would expect from its being a mode of intentionality, but also a willing of itself as willing something external to the agent.