This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."

My thanks to Diana Hsieh for an excellent, clear discussion of Nietzsche. I enjoyed her concise contrast of Nietzsche’s philosophical method to the Objectivist approach. I focus my limited comments here on Diana’s discussion of the comparison of Nietzsche’s and Ayn Rand’s conception of freedom of the will. In particular, I center my comments on Rand’s conception of free will as the human ability to *focus* consciousness, and that this is the precise meaning of her claim that it is the “choice to think or not.” I don’t think this distinction is given enough attention in discussions about this crucial issue.

The mistake Nietzsche makes is a conceptual one. As Diana points out, Nietzsche’s contrast object for his concept of “freewill” is a sui generis ability to create something out of nothing. He is thinking of freewill as if it were a detached, supernatural ability to will something to happen out of nothing, existentialist-style. Diana perceptively critiques Nietzsche’s intrinsicist error of using as his contrast a Kantian Will which is free from earthy existence. This leaves Nietzsche with a conception of freewill to possibly defend that must literally be a “creative force” in order to have efficacy in the world; it is shouldered with the responsibility of generating something out of nothing, a responsibility nothing can support. He rightly rejects such a conception, but is left defending a contradiction--Masters who are acting against their “nature,” but who can’t act against their nature.

In contrast, Ayn Rand carefully ties our capacity to focus to our existence as actual beings in the world. She describes a unique, emergent ability to self-consciously direct attention as separating human consciousness from other types. In her words, “the choice ‘to think or not’ is the choice ‘to focus or not’” (TOE, VoS, 20). Interestingly, this is a much more limited ability than is usually attributed to defenders of freedom of the will; Peikoff describes focus as “the precondition of thought” (Lexicon 168). This “precondition” simply, but elegantly, points to the capacity of adult human beings, to a greater or lesser extent, to grab the causal reins and direct consciousness. Thus, this aspect of human nature is nicely tied to the causal efficacy of human freedom.

The mistake Nietzsche makes is a conceptual one.

As Diana also notes, the Objectivist account permits a better account of facts Nietzsche would like to explain with the “helmsman” metaphor. By isolating acts of focus from other acts of consciousness, one properly permits classification of interactions between various aspects of consciousness. For example, since one can only self-consciously focus on a limited number of facts at any one time, other facts not currently in focus may be acting simultaneously to influence consciousness. Sub-conscious factors may well affect one while one focuses elsewhere; however, one retains the ability to direct attention to those factors, reconsider them, and change their effect. This account permits a “helmsman” capacity for free will, while also maintaining its identity as causally efficacious. For an elaboration of such interactions, I suggest people get copies of Will Wilkinson’s paper on the psycho-epistemology he presented at the Atlas Society's Summer Seminar a couple of years back.  

I will end with one difficult issue regarding human development. Ken Livingston points out in his discussions of child-rearing that one of the primary challenges is the development of a child’s moral capacity. Unless I’m misinterpreting, a child begins life with only two broad categories of influences--environmental and genetic--but over time may also come to be able to direct attention, i.e., to have free will. However, if a child is raised in the wild by a pack of wolves (the Wild Boy of Avarone), he may not develop the capacity for focusing. Ayn Rand herself describes, in her “Comprachicos” article, the crippling of children by the education system as a similar destruction of a person’s capacity to think. So, it seems to me that free will is a capacity, not a given, for adults. It also seems that we might describe people as having a greater or lesser ability to exercise the capacity depending on influences outside their control.

Just trying to stick a gnat in the pharmaceutical...  

Back to Diana Hsieh, "'Birds of Prey': Freedom of the Will and the Value of Genealogy"

> Return to the parent page for this 2000 online CyberSeminar, "Nietzsche and Objectivism."


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