The following slogan often attributed to Schopenhauer

"A man can do as he will, but not will as he will" [so there is no free will]

— quoted by Albert Einstein in "Mein Weltbild" (1931)

has always irritated me. What would be a counterargument to it? Are there any major philosophers who argued against it?

  • I meant a reference to the original source from Schopenhauer. For me it is not clear to which passage Einstein refers and whether Einstein makes a literal quote.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 15, 2015 at 18:22
  • @JoWehler: Actually, it's not a literal quote, it is wrongly attributed to Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer said something similar in his prize essay "On the Freedom of the Will": "You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing."
    – Xolotl
    Oct 15, 2015 at 18:26
  • You are right. I asked because I know your quote from the German original of the "Preisschrift über die Freiheit des Willens". Apparently the original has a different meaning than the quote of the OP. But the original quote seems clear to me.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 15, 2015 at 18:30
  • @JoWehler: still the question is about the quote "A man can do as he will, but not will as he will"
    – Xolotl
    Oct 15, 2015 at 18:31
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    I don't know if anyone's ever refuted Schopenhauer's argument. That speaks volumes, doesn't it? Feb 18, 2023 at 11:22

6 Answers 6


As you see from the discussion subsequent to your post the original quote is from Schopenhauer, Arthur: Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens (= On the Freedom of the Will). Brockhaus, Leipzig 1868, p.68. It reads

You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing. = Du kannst thun was du willst: aber du kannst, in jedem gegebenen Augenblick deines Lebens, nur Ein Bestimmtes wollen und schlechterdings nichts Anderes, als dieses Eine."

The question whether Schopenhauer is right belongs to psychology. We know that some persons in certain situations are unable to make a rational decision between two opposite possibilities (exemplified by Buridan's ass).

Einstein's statement

A man can do as he will, but not will as he will.

considers quite a different point of human nature. Einstein explains the meaning of this statement just before:

In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity.

Einstein stresses that our actions are determined by two diffent kinds of constraints: Exterior and interior constraints. Hence instead of - interior - free will Einstein sees interior constraints. Unfortunately, in this passage Einstein does not give any argument for his rebuff to the concept of free will.

A well-known philosopher who votes for the existence of free will is Kant; notably in his works on practical philosophy. Because Kant takes free will as presupposition for any moral action.

Today the issue of free will is investigated also in the field of neuroscience. Until now, neuroscience like any other natural science has no other means to operate than to employ strict causality.

I expect: Further investigations from neuroscience will show, how former experience shapes our preferences, which serve as standard for the interior evaluation of possible alternatives for future action. This deterministic process of decision is shielded because it is unconscious in general.

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    I realize it is a bit of a side issue, but I think you misunderstand Buridan's ass. The point is that there is no rationale for choosing one bale over the other, so reason cannot resolve the dilemma. In practice, he knows perfectly well that the ass will resolve it - just not on rational grounds.
    – Ludwig V
    Feb 18, 2023 at 10:19

Considerung Schopenhauer himself, see the comment of mine above. As you did not want to have an answer to his particular position, I'll go on with Einstein.

The wit behind Einstein's quote seems to aim to the fact that our will is naturally, socially and historically bound and therefore we cannot will what we "want" to in the sense of absolute capriciousness, but have to choose within the bounds of society and physics. So it aims at a misleading understanding of freedom. This interpretation is purely speculative since there is no further backup of source how he did mean it. It just fits to his further "world views" like "Gott würfelt nicht." ("God does not play dice.") Maybe I'm building a straw-man here, though.

Taking this as a hypothesis, almost every philosopher arguing for a free will is agreeing with that. The alternative would be a lawless causation, which is refuted by Kant for example in the Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals by saying:

Since the concept of a causality carries with it that of laws in accordance with which must be posited, through that which we call a cause, something else, namely its result; therefore freedom, even though it is not a quality of the will in accordance with natural laws, is not for this reason lawless, but rather it has to be a causality in accordance with unchangeable laws, but of a particular kind; for otherwise a free will would be an impossibility. (Ak 4:446, Allen W. Woods translation)

In other words, even for Kant the freedom of reason (transcendental freedom) cannot produce something ex nihilo, but has to consider laws (and reality, which is rather hard to show in easy citations).

Edit: Jo worked out a reference to clarifiy Einstein's position, so this answer in this respect in fact is kind of obsolete, but I will let it be until a better one answers the question about counterarguments.

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    Let me turn your argument around. Naturally, socially and historically bound is a far cry from determined, so capriciousness and lawless causality are straw men. The real question is the presence of gaps in causal chains. Determinism is itself purely speculative, and largely supported by extrapolation of outdated conception of physical laws, all of which are only approximate and many even ostensibly indeterministic. The insincerity objection to solipsism works also against determinism, the two positions are structurally similar in other ways as well.
    – Conifold
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:20
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    Two-stage models of free will proposed since Boussinesq and James show that free will is at least logically compatible with physical laws, taken as empirically observed rather than extrapolated. The basis of Kant's argument is his a priori postulation of unbroken causality. But his premise of causality as a necessary condition of the possibility of experience in time is hardly defensible today, the argument is therefore unsound.
    – Conifold
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:32
  • @Conifold: Please consider my comment here regarding an alternative reading of Kant. Apart from that, references to James are welcome ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:36
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    I'll look at Timmermann, but his reading is not relevant here. Kant's view of causality is flawed quite apart from his account of free will. Psychology does not support the idea that we establish temporal chains based on causal chains as he thought, see Kitcher's Kant's Transcendental Psychology. James's model is summarized here informationphilosopher.com/freedom/two-stage_models.html Boussinesq pointed out that even classical mechanics has the requisite causal gaps hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/2678/…
    – Conifold
    Oct 15, 2015 at 22:06
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    Kitcher simply restates what Kant repeats over and over in the second analogy:"it is only because we subject the sequence of the appearances and thus all alteration to the law of causality that experience itself, i.e., empirical cognition of them, is possible... a rule is the ground that necessitates us to observe this order of the perceptions rather than another". And even if causality were the rule that orders perceptions, which it isn't, it would still not make it a necessary condition of experience. Not even laws of logic are that.
    – Conifold
    Oct 16, 2015 at 19:40

Einstein has said that his belief in determinism reduced his dismay at the mistreatment of people he observed in the world.

"I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper." -- Elkana, Yehuda and Adi Ophir, eds. (1979). Einstein 1879-1979: Exhibition. New York: Jewish National and University Library.

His space-time theory both supports and is supported by his determinist beliefs. It says that all space-time coexists. Present moment awareness is just a journey through the pre-existing space-time manifold. This theory avoids the "self-energy" problems that arise when matter has to actually move and drag its fields (EM and gravity) along with it.


"A person can do what the person wills, but cannot choose what the person wills" is an a priori argument that rests on two assumptions:

  1. That a choice of what to will is not among choices of what to do. That is, will is a priori restricted in fixed, immutable levels.
  2. If the above statement is true, that one cannot access another level to will, because it leads to infinite regress.

Both claims can easily be contested:

  1. There is absolutely no a priori reason (unless assumed to be so, thus a priori denying will) that what to will is not among what to do. That is there is no a priori reason for will to be intially restricted in fixed, immutable levels. Note that will restricted in levels in a fluid, contingent sense does not pose any serious threat to "choices of what to will are among choices of what to do", in general.
  2. Even if will is restricted in fixed, immutable levels, there is still no infinite regress in practice, since one, in practice, will have to go only some finite levels deep or up in order to reach the appropriate level to will at that level.

It is important to note that "choose what to will" is not that different from choosing among available options (choices about what to do are not affected), based on different reasons or being able to re-arrange and re-prioritize existing reasons. Even choosing the same thing, but for different reasons. Another way that choice of what to will can be among choices of what to do, is that what one does can influence or affect what one wills (eg at a later time). There is nothing fundamentally impossible in these statements, leading to infinite regress. As argued elsewhere, to claim that available options are necessarily compatible/incompatible in only one fixed sense to reasons or that what we do has no consequence on us as well, is another question-begging a priori statement.

Furthermore Schopenhauer claims that one can never will to will, no matter what. There may indeed be cases where our will is restricted in this sense - and other cases that is not - but the total a priori statement that Schopenhauer is making is not justified as argued above.

Translation of "On the Freedom of the Will" by Arthur Schopenhauer

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    "If you don't make up your mind, you can't change it." (I think that's attributed to Pogo)
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 18, 2023 at 12:57
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    @ScottRowe that counts as even better answer than mine :)
    – Nikos M.
    Feb 18, 2023 at 13:24
  • Choosing what to will means the same as choosing your preferences. But you cannot do that, because you must have preferences in order to choose anything. And those preferences you must have chosen by earlier preferences and so on. The infinite regress is here. Therefore you cannot choose what to will. Feb 20, 2023 at 5:28
  • Besides, what to will is not among what to do by definition, not by assumption. Willing is mental, doing is physical. Willing is theory, doing is practice. Willing is personal, doing is observable by others. Feb 20, 2023 at 5:34
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    @NikosM. That would be re-arranging and re-prioritizing your reasons for choosing your actions, revising your action plans. The ultimate goals of survival, reproduction and general well-being cannot be edited. Feb 20, 2023 at 9:18

There are no counterarguments as this statement is an irrefutable logical fact. A truism. Of course you cannot will what to will, you cannot choose to prefer something else than what you already prefer.

A man's will defines the ultimate goals he wants to achieve, namely to survive and multiply.

A man is free to choose his actions, the methods by which he attempts to achieve his goals, to satisfy his will.

Schopenhauer's statement is not a refutation of free will, it is a redefinition. One that makes a lot of sense.

  • The conclusion follows only if one accepts the premises. Which both can be doubted, as unsound. So it is not such an irrefutable statement at all.
    – Nikos M.
    Feb 19, 2023 at 9:42
  • There is no conclusion and therefore no premises either. Only two irrefutable facts. Feb 19, 2023 at 11:49

You question relates to 'major philosophers'. I posit that you and I may indeed be as yet unrecognized major philosophers, and so offer my own observation for your consideration. As noted previously in the conversation, it has been suggested by Kant that morality is presupposed by free will, and it may have been suggested by Einstein and Schopenhauer that will is so conditioned by causation and environment as to be all but free. I suggest that from my own experience there is no disagreement between these ideas because both are correct. Moral choices do require the ability to chose between competing words and actions, and the choices we make are shaped greatly by environment past, present and anticipated. Observing those most troubled with cognitive dissonance surrounding issues of morality, we often see people effectively paralyzed by indecision. In these instances, it is often possible to effect significant relief from cognitive dissonance with the introduction of additional information, such that the sufferer allows himself thereafter to act with a confidence that his action is indeed moral. At one point, as a then self-identified humanist, I considered myself to be the smallest divisible unit of the community of humans, and therefore the rational center of my morality - that protection of individual human rights generally, and specifically my rational self interest should govern my moral choices. I experienced cognitive dissonance with respect to eating animals, but justified this act in the (mis)understanding that eating animals was a biological imperative for my good health. Once I learned that human life can be healthfully maintained without eating animals, I was then able to relieve my cognitive dissonance and stop eating animals. Both of my choices, to eat animals, and to desist eating animals were moral choices made of my free will, but guided by my understanding intrinsically and environmentally conditioned. I submit that the better you understand a situation, the more likely you will arrive at an objectively correct moral choice, guided by free will. In the absence of understanding you will arrive most likely at moral choices which fall short of those attained with greater understanding, but they will be no less moral, and no less compelling.

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    Welcome to Philosophy.SE. Your second sentence contradicts the purpose and desired contents of this site, as we are looking for answers based on references and sources. Please see the help center for more information. Kant did adress the contradiction (or lack thereof) within the conceptions of freedom in his third antinomy of pure reason in the Critique of Pure Reason from 1781, by the way.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 30, 2015 at 20:59
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    @PhilipKlöcking I appreciate your observation, such that it is. My comments were not offered collectively as reference, but rather personal experience. As this site also mentions personal experience in the guidelines for submitting responses, I do not believe my post was in fact contrary to the purposes or desires of the site, as indicated. Please review the text displayed for those posting as guests. Dec 30, 2015 at 21:15
  • Subjective answers are definitely okay, but it can help to be really clear about how your interpretation is grounded in the text that the questioner is studying
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 30, 2015 at 21:46
  • Being a vegeteraian myself, I sympathize with the answer, which I do think provides a tangible counter-example to Schopenhauer's a priori argument.
    – Nikos M.
    Feb 19, 2023 at 9:44

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