Nietzsche's theory of the will.

This one is for you Three Times…
For those interested, I shall also post something about the Lutheran influence in such theory in the religion forum.
My argument is set agaisnt Brian Leiter’s paper “Nietzsche’s Theory of the Will”, published in 2007 and available at

When attribute responsibility to someone for their actions, we assume that they had a choice and could’ve done otherwise. In Nietzsche’s parlance, we attribute moral responsibility to a person with freewill and could not otherwise.

In every action there are three phenomenological ingredients:

  1. A “plurality of feelings”, related to body movements, such as the feeling of my finger pulling on a trigger.
  2. A “commandering thought”, such as my thought that I decide when to pull the trigger or when to latch on the safety. I command my fingers to do either act.
  3. A feeling of pleasure, a meta-feeling, as Leiter calls it, which comes as an affect of the other two combined. It develops because the agent takes the first feeling as caused by the second feeling.

It is the second ingredient that Leiter, following Nietzsche, goes after- the commandering thought, rather than the meta-feeling or the plurality of feelings. Leiter points out:
“He starts from another bit of phenomenology, namely that, 'a thought comes when ‘it’ wants and not when ‘I’ want.”
Now, during a math examination, the correct thought, the answer may not come when I will it, for a quick example, but surely our whole conscious life cannot be reduced to such examples. We ignore other examples where we have a choice to bring about the thought, specifically the “command” of aiming a gun and pulling the trigger, or telling a lie versus telling the truth, both moral actions with consequences, or moral judgments ascribed to them, which remember is key to this entire argument.
But, Leiter goes on and says that:"…our “thoughts appear in consciousness without our having willed them.”, thus, this includes even the commandering thought, necessarily ascribed to the moral agent, and so the willing is actually unwilled. But again, is this accurate? Does this presents an accurate description of lying for example, or aiming and pulling the trigger?

Let me offer a counter-argument:
Actions are either “Cold” or “Hot”. Think of the expression:“A crime committed in cold blood”, as in meaning that it was calculated, thought thoroughly and carried out systematically, and with the greatest moral weight and gravity. In constrast to this type of action consider the other expression:“In the heat of the moment”, which reduces the culpability or responsibility of the person who has acted in such and such way because he was less involved rationally speaking in the actions he took, and as expected, result in a diminished moral weigth and gravity given to these actions. The point of the argument does not deny the argument Nietzsche makes, but it does not place it as an absolute description of mental life and instead provides an explanation to exceptions Nietzsche’s theory cannot answer. But moving along Leiter’s paper…

So what people lie and aim and pull triggers in Nietzsche’s view? It is not the person’s conscious choice. A Choice is just a rationalization of unchosen processess and drives. It is like the man that feel of a ladder and says:"No, I did not fall, I just chose to take a break and lay down. Leiter describes Nietzsche’s “Doctrine of Types”:
“Each person has a fixed psycho-physical constitution, which defines him as a particular type of person.”
Leiter explains that "each person has certain largely immutable physiological and psychic traits that constitute the “type” of person he or she is.

Let me add a comment> While everyone can easily accept that we are influenced by factors outside of our control, to make every factor as outside of our control is a case of what Sartre called “bad faith”, the desire to be free of choice, to be like a rock or a plant root which have essensses which they inexorably follow. The good teacher said that by their fruit you shall know them but we are trees of many different fruits because we lack a specific essensse to which we comform. This means that there is no absolute physical or psychic trait or factor that can explain our entire biography. Otherwise the horoscope must be considered science. There are no absolute “types”. Nietzsche’s own description of a battle of drives rules out the idea of a “type”, but more about that later…

Leiter says on page 10:
“As he writes on Daybreak, “We are accustomes to exclude all the unconscious processes from the accounting and to reflect on the preparation for an act only to the extent that it is conscious…” a view which Nietzsche plainly regards as mistaken.” Indeed it is mistaken but so also is to swing the pendulum to the other extreme view that unconscious processes rule all of our actions. Each action is a separate event that cannot be predicted with absolute certainty even if approximations and speculations can be made. Each act has a different set of ingredients. Some actions we perform in the heat of passion, other through logical progressions or a reasoned effort, and so the level of agency goes through gradations as well. As Nieztsche himself says:“By far the greatest part of our spirit’s activity remains unconscious and unfelt”, but enough actions remain which are consciously felt to retain the idea of a personal willing. As if to throw us a bone, Leiter backs away a little and says:
“I do not see that Nietzsche needs to defend this radical thesis, for what he is interested in debuking is the causal nexus between the conscious experience of will and actions of moral significance, that is, the actions for which moral praise or blame might be ascribed.”
Indeed. A moral act might be said to be one in which we had a choice. You are asked by the law officer:“Do you know how fast you were going?” What is your response? You might very well remember clearly that you were going 55 on a 45 mph zone and yet say:“I don’t remember” or “I don’t know”. That is a lie because you had the choice of telling the truth. All the other factors, like an unconscious fear of authority figures, what you had that morning, the fact that you cannot afford a ticket, none of these is sufficient to prevent the choice of actually telling the truth.
I think that alot of this has to do with Nietzsche’s taste, the affinity to greek tragedy, fatalism and even Lutheranism, all of which narrate the life of men as totally outside of his/her control. We are playthings either of gods, God or “drives” and even irresistible drives. Christians may have been the calumnators of our world, but certainly Nietzsche was no less the calumnator of autonomy. To him, as with Luther, we are donkeys that are saddled either by god or devil, but never free.
Another unexamined account is the birth of the “I”. The “I will” might be in some cases an interpretation of processes we did not will, or it might be that the “I” depends on processes and thus is the expression and personification of processes. A person’s “I” is determined by the mental, brain states it is in. As the brain goes, so does the “I”. The eye sees everything but itself, likewise a brain may be behind an action but it cannot see itself. The “I” is the personification of brain states. The brain is determined by various factors, but freewill is what comes after these determinations have been taken into consideration. To pull a trigger we must assume that a person already has a gun, a finger, an arm and nerves that attach that arm to a brain that acts on this link of biological factors. A brain can have a “switchboard” and sometimes it may not. Sometimes the factors that act on the brain are not personified, and so there is no person, no moral agent, just a gun and a brain. But other times you will have this switchboard, this personification of the brain, which is a causal link because it can create an action from it’s station or deny an action. The “I” is itself a product, we have to understand that, but a product that goes on to produce an action. Although we have brain states, these are not unchangeable and so cannot be construed as “types” or “essensses”. That would be a falsification of nature and the fundamentals to a theology like Luther’s.

Leiter brings in Daniel Wegner as verifying what Nietzsche had intued. I can’t go on too far into what Wenger says, but I can use him to illustrate my point one last time. Think of a video game in “which you feel your manipulation of the joystick explains the action on the screen, when in fact, the machine is just running a pre-set program.” I have seen the experiment in which a person was placed in front of a computer and made to believe that the joystick in front of them controlled the action on the screen when in another room a scientist would actually hold the real joystick and he was the one in control of what happened on the screen. Of course this creates the problem of doubting whether the scientist himself is not just another specimen in another’s experiment, so that he too is living an illusion of being in control of the screen. However, at face value, the goal is to gage the feeling of power, really and how this is tied to elapsed time. The longer the time between movement and reaction on the screen, the fewer test subjects who would ascribe the action on the screen to what they were doing to the joystick.
Ever walk into an arcade as a child and did put money in the machine but you still played with the little spaceship, trying to control it with the joystick? You can fool a child into believing that he is actually playing with the spaceship on the screen only for so long, because eventually the child realizes that what he is doing with the joystick is irrelevant of what is happening on the screen. This is kinda like what we mean when we express our belief in our autonomy and choice. Are we always in control? Always free? No. But neither are we always under bondage of drives and irresistible drives. And when we set out to master our passion (which is when we recognize our bondage), to be free from lust, a drive, one has to wonder if we seek to be free of it of it is another lust, another drive that is annoyed by the other drive. Again, this is simply to place personality on something other than the “I”, which seem to me like a waste of time because we engage in needless regressions. We ascribe intention, impossible for men, to “drives”. There is no rivalry between an atom and another atom, but we hear Nietzsche speak of “rival drives”. Doesn’t matter how ironically or metaphorically he means it because the “I”, as I say, is itself a metaphor a stand-in for a brain-state. The “I” is whatever the brain can muster at that moment, be it memories or else. The brain has two highways, perhaps more, but definetly two modes of operation: The moral worth of an action depends on the brain state involved. Actions that are high in adrenalin bypass the process of deliberation and thus need no “I”. Other processes are less exited and these are or have the chance of being deliberated, which implies the “I” and the moral responsibility. Drives dominate in the former highway while reflection and memory dominate the second highway. The intellect is no mere spectator. It is absent and present, not idle. During a deliberation, the intellect dominates the discourse, while during a moment of anger, fear, passion, adrenalin, drives dominate the actions of a person. Of course, a person’s brain is not literally divided into neat systems and processes so that the borders are fuzzy and exceptions in these borders exist.

I think that overall Nietzsche’s theory is useful, but taken to the extremes, as he does, loses applicability as a theory because it’s explanatory prowess is diminished in the face of key exceptions that it cannot explain. Limiting itself to moral events is not good enough either because moral events are the biggest treath to it’s explanatory power. Freewill as it’s own cause is a myth, an illusion, yes, but so is it a myth to ascribe every cause in an action to a drive, set of drives, or to a rivalry between drives, as it leaves no room to explain the person itself.

Nietzsche’s point is that the “I” is not the “mind”. It’s not just mental function. That commandeering thought is not all there is to us, or to our “decisions”.

As for moral choice - N is precluding thoughts alone as sinful - our thoughts alone don’t describe the relevant moral agent. He is not disallowing any use at all for morality - he is disallowing sin. He is disallowing that we could be born to original sin, or that we are sinful “by nature”. We can break moral rules, and know that we have, but this is not a “natural” function - our natures (according to type) may be, by Christian standards for instance, virtuous or vicious - that’s just a coincidence with Christian morality. But he doesn’t disallow that we can commit an act, knowing the rules, and knowing that we have broken them.

He is arguing against essentialism of morality, or of traditional moral virtue, but for essentialism as to type. Some types are just “bad”.

Have you ever read Luther? I wonder if Luther was one of Nietzsche’s educators along with Schopenhauer. A man so dedicated to the overcoming of religion in the end may have unconsciously adopted a Christian theology. What shall replace the Omniopotent God? Omnipotent “drives”.
In Luther God is the great Potter, making some pots for noble purposes and other pots for ignoble purposes. In Nietzsche naturalized, materialist philosophy, we may not be pots but we are “types”, made again not by a willed action from a free agent, but born and determined by physical and psychical causes that are, in relation to our consciousness, omnipotent.

I have read only excerpts and commentary, I believe. Interesting notion. I’ll try to find some online.

nietzsche’s father was a lutheran minister


Do you think this influenced Nietzsche’s theory of the will? I was interested in hearing YOUR opinion of how I have criticised this theory, as presented by Leiter.
Seems to me that at least in Nietzsche there wasn’t too much distance between him and Lutheranism. He was only one God removed, but switch those around and you’ve a Lutheran theological foundation.

Maybe it was just a huge coincidence.

However, I have read your OP and the linked paper and I still don’t know what it is about Luther that seems so similar. Could you flesh that out a bit?

I am not certain what you are getting at here… but I don’t think that lutherans or nietzsche are searching for justification…

faith is enough for lutherans (correct me if I am wrong) because no action is truly free in their eyes, unlike catholics who believe in free will with the trappings of moral responsibility (faith plus good works=salvation)… I think nietzsche denies moral responsibility on either ground and his argument is against faith in a beyond… nietzsche’s point is to live as if you had to live it an infinite number of times, only make those decisions (morally) that you can live with repeating ad infinitum because there is no metaphysical justification…

but I am not certain how this meshes with the arguments presented… this is merely my take…


Sure. The text that is important is Luther’s “Bondage of the Will”. The larger context is his theological debate with Erasmus. Erasmus is defending the belief in freewill, because of the same reasons that it has always been a necessity in any moral judgment of an action and the Day of God’s Judgment is a moral court. Without Freewill, Erasmus posits, and I think correctly, there can be no hope of justice. The sinner is absolved and must be let go for something “he” did not choose to do. Freewill, as Nietzsche would also argue, is a classic requirement to attach responsibility to an action either good or bad. With the belief in freewill you also have the belief in desert- that I, or anyone, “deserves” either praise or blame. Again, Erasmus presents his argument in relation to God doing the praising or blaming, but the reach of the argument goes to everyday human interaction.

Luther’s counter is to deny the existence of any potency above God. To be truly free, the will must be out of the reach of God’s power and Luther will not admit that, neither can Erasmus. Erasmus is not too keen about debating the issue. He thinks it clarifies little and creates tons of discord and the ability of critics to jump on the very inconsistencies the theologians bring up. He was right by the way. But He cannot do anything. There are many texts in the Bible that support Luther’s claim. Luther does take them at face value and does not look to allegorize them. The logic for him is clear: If God is omnipotent then our will cannot be free (this also influenced Mikhail Bakunin who wrote in his God and the State:“For, if God is, he is necessarly the eternal, supreme, absolute master, and if such a master exist, man is a slave;”). Think of Satan- he is not free to do as he pleases- he is allowed by God to do this and that. All responsibility then lies in God…in the logical conclusions that can be reached using Luther’s theology, as Calvin would eventually.

Now let me add some important details. Luther believes that God’s omnipotence must by necessity animate evil men as well as good men. These men are either good according to their nature, their make. God hardens Pharaoh insofar as His Omnipotence acts through him. Like a rider riding a three legged pony, he cannot but ride badly. In page 208, he answers the question as to why wouldn’t God just change nature and make noble pots of everyone, pretty much, and Luther just makes an appeal to God’s transcendence.

Now take away “God” just for a second and what you have left is basically a naturalism that predates the rise of materialism, I think. Men are born predisposed for evil, or bad behaviour for example, or noble thoughts. They are pre-made by nature to be sociable or unsociable…their character is not something which the choose- it is an effect of something beyond their ability to choose. Their choices are thus determined by this make-up which they cannot choose to alter.

Now add God once again and you just insert Him as the “Force” that shines throught the prism of each man’s nature.

Hello Imp:

— faith is enough for lutherans (correct me if I am wrong) because no action is truly free in their eyes, unlike catholics who believe in free will with the trappings of moral responsibility (faith plus good works=salvation)…
O- But even more importantly for Luther, he ask: How do you that what you has pleased God enough to earn you Heaven? Because reghardless of our virtues, we will eventually commit some sin, knowingly or not that could incur in God’s wrath. Luther loses this preocupation by believing that he could not do anything good or bad to alter his status as one of the saved. Others will be worried (or were at Luther’s time) constantly and fork out their lives savings in buying absolutions from priest either for themselves or for loved ones already in purgatory.

— I think nietzsche denies moral responsibility on either ground and his argument is against faith in a beyond… nietzsche’s point is to live as if you had to live it an infinite number of times, only make those decisions (morally) that you can live with repeating ad infinitum because there is no metaphysical justification…
O- But like Luther, Nietzsche believed no action is free, or chosen, but predetermined by factors that are not chosen. Yet, the freespirit, like Luther, finds comfort in just this thought, this belief. The Eternal Return is a materialist mythology in which if time is infinite but matter is finite then material combinations will eventually repeat again and again over the eternity of time…but this does not mean that we choose our combinations or whom we are, and what we choose, but points to the fact that we are choosing what was already chosen before and will choose again, when the same combinations determine the occasion. The ER is there as if to accentuate the fatalism of life and it’s tragic character-- it is a dark figure that tells the story.

but I am not certain how this meshes with the arguments presented… this is merely my take…

But omar - that which binds us, for Luther, is outside us. And he truly believes in good and evil. Neither is true for Nietzsche.

then again, choosing to believe (faith) is a freely chosen action which in itself is beyond the power of any believer in luther’s spiel…

damn wrenches


to the contrary I would say - Nietzsche invokes the ER because he could not bear to see the all-justifying states of happiness he experienced as fleeting. Nietzsche was all about happiness. Happiness equals the feeling of increasing power, the will to power is everything, so everything is the will to happiness. That dark figure exists only when your sorrow overshadows your existential joy. But you have to bite that snake in half.


Very true what you said. I meant that the ER return is meant to be viewed as tragic by some, not by Nietzsche of course. The will to power is the will to happiness in the face of or in spite of tragedy, because remember that Nietzsche’s life was no picnic. He was not out to resign himself to his tragic condition, on this we agree, he was out there blessing it. This is also part of that german spirit that is found in secular and religious thinkers, all of whom bless this world in spite of all it’s shortcomings. That is what is really interesting.

He believes in good and evil because he believes in God…as I said, these men are apart only by one God. Take God out of the equation and Nietzsche is pretty much following much of what Luther presupposed, that is the Bondage of The Will by omnipotent powers, be it Satan and God in Luther, or competing Drives in Nietzsche.

…beyond their power…thus it is not truly a choice…it is what they were born to do. Do you believe that faith, in whichever form, may have biological origins?

I’ve always thought the ER was the superior type of man’s way of coping with tragedy. Not something to assume as true so that you’ll look forwards to enjoying the good times. One ought not become squeamish in the face of tragedy or of suffering. One should not mount a defense against it and make it an enemy. One ought to embrace it just as one would unproblematically embrace the good times. I really don’t see the value of ER if it’s just a way of approaching the good times.

I’m pretty sure that’s an error -
the great disadvantage of the ER to Zarathustra is that it also necessitates that the horror, hate, disgust and pity will infinitely return.

omar - every atheist has to replace god with something. If only himself.

Well, maybe. I’m not very well versed in N. But it strikes me as odd that Nietzsche would consider tragedy a disadvantage in a life.

biological origins… born to raise hell? born to believe? it’s in the genes?

I have said many times that I prefer to believe in freewill…

can I prove it? nor has anyone to any large degree of satisfaction…

mick has left the building…


Also sprach Zarathustra is written in the language of the Lutherbibel.

An interesting read in this regard is Brown’s Life Against Death: it has a chapter dedicated to Luther (starting with his having his epiphany while on the toilet), and tells, among other things, how he drove away the Devil with a big fart. Luther apparently conceived “this world” as a hellhole, and believed it would get ever worse until the Second Coming of Jesus. The only way to prevail, as a soul, in this corrupt world (and the human body, too, was corrupt in his view) was in faith: the faith in said Second Coming.

The Lutherbibel calls the serpent listiger (“more cunning”) than all the beasts of the field; Nietzsche called man the strongest animal because he was the most cunning (das listigste—in Der Antichrist). I noticed this when I was reading in the Lutherbibel, after I’d read about a recent English Zarathustra-translation which claims to do justice to the aforementioned fact (regarding the original). I forgot which translation it was, though (I believe it translates Übermensch as “overhuman”).