I first encountered the bolded quote on p 80, Philosophy: A Complete Introduction (2012) by Prof Sharon Kaye (MA PhD in Philosophy, U. Toronto), part of Chapter 6 on Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau, free will, determinism, and compatbilism.

[ Reddit :] I do not at all believe in human freedom in the philosophical sense. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. Schopenhauer's saying, "A man can do what he [wants]1, but not [want]2 what he [wants]3," has been a very real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life's hardships, my own and others', and an unfailing well-spring of tolerance.

I conjecture the 3 wants above mean different desires: 1 and 2 mean primitive superficial urges or John Stuart Mill's phrase 'lower pleasures' (eg:chocolate, guilty pleasures, etc...); but 3 means John Stuart Mill's phrase 'higher pleasures' or second-order virtuous aretes. Did I neglect anything?

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    Related: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/28504/… the underlying Will to Live is all man can want and do and freedom is an illusion for Schopenhauer.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 6, 2016 at 8:12
  • I take it to mean that a man can do whatever he wants to mean that a man can do whatever he wants (legally) but cannot want what he wants (meaning either the law or the man's conscience will hold him back, from doing it). Nov 24, 2017 at 2:31
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    It seems a straightforward idea and a common one. He is agreeing with the Buddhists that our desires are conditioned, and that what we usually call freewill is our conditioning in action. This would be the perennial view on freewill.
    – user20253
    Nov 24, 2017 at 10:26
  • @Canada - Area 51 Proposal. As explained in my answer below, I think Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures is not at the heart of this question.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 24, 2017 at 16:19
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    This is one of my dearest sayings as well. It brilliantly captures the source of most inner conflicts and expresses it in a childlike manner. Let me help you understand this with an example, Consider yourself appearing for an interview with a firm you deeply admire and have always want to be a part of. You walk into the room with great expectations and enthusiasm. The interviewer asks you to sit down on a chair and begins to illustrate the situation. He says you will be given one task and if you do it right you make it otherwise you're out! He then says very plainly , I want you to feel extrem
    – Lince
    Jan 16, 2018 at 6:26

7 Answers 7


This is just an old paradox in discussions of free will.

You are free to do whatever you desire. But you are not free to choose your desires. Similarly, Marx said, "man" makes his own history, but not under the historical conditions of his choosing. And Mill attempted to secularize the paradox by observing that we are slaves to habit, but can step back and form those habits. We can, in some measure, both rely on causes and effects and intervene between them.

The idea, which arises in many forms, is that "freedom" is indeed inevitably paradoxical. There is no such thing as "absolute" freedom nor "absolute" constraint. There are only indeterminacies and determinations on different levels, of which one may or may not be aware.

  • Great answer. A non-dualist might put it slightly differently and say that absolute freedom and absolute constraint are the same thing. In theistic terms this would be to say that God in infinitely free within the absolute constraints of His being, while in Taoism the Universe would unfold as it does 'Tao being what is' (Lao Tsu) and this would be both a freedom and a constraint. This is not a different view but elaborates it. There would be no paradox but there would be every appearance of one.
    – user20253
    Nov 24, 2017 at 16:53
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    @Nelson Alexander. Interesting and pertinent use of Mill. Are you thinking of System of Logic, VI.2 : 'A person feels morally free who feels that his habits or his temptations are not his masters, but he theirs; who, even in yielding to them, knows that he could resist; that were he desirous of altogether throwing them off, there would not be required for that purpose a stronger desire than he knows himself to be capable of feeling' ?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 24, 2017 at 19:40

It's hard to translate from German where the sentence is very clear:

Der Mensch kann zwar tun, was er will, aber er kann nicht wollen, was er will.

I think a more understandable way to translate it would be:

A man can do what he wants, but not choose or select what he wants

We have a free will to do what we want but our free will doesn't choose what we want.

Very simplified: We can eat or not if we want, but we can't choose to want to eat or not. It probably depends if we are hungry or not, which we can not control. We can't turn of being hungry by free will.


I think it is quite simple. A man can do what he wants. This, of course, means he is free to choose to do what he likes. A man however, cannot want what he wants. This, to me, means that I cannot have a choice in my desires. If I desire or want a red car, can I feel the same "wanting" for a blue one? Who knows why I want what I want? Can I want something which I never liked? Can I choose my desires? A man cannot want what he wants.

  • If you have a reference to someone who takes a similar view, this would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome to Philosophy! Jan 25, 2019 at 18:22
  • @FrankHubeny Oh, you philosophers are funny :) You need to add the mandatory prefix "Confucius said: ..." even if someone tries to explain another philosopher :) That's why I completely stopped reading a philosophical books, this obsession in founding your opinion on someone else's opinion is unbearable. Jul 29, 2021 at 17:37

It strikes me that:

A man cannot want ... what he wants

is an expression of 'inner necessity'; it ought to be read as 'a man can only want what he wants'; and in this way its tautological structure of necessity comes forward:

  • he cannot want what he is not wanting - because he is not wanting it.

  • he can only want what he is wanting, because he is wanting it

It shouldn't be read as say the admission of an opium addict in 19th C London, as Sherlock Holmes was, who comes to realise 'he does not want what he wants'; or the cri de coeur writ large of Jenny Holzer's 'Protect me from what I want'.

Also, thinking that wanting is a kind of desire, and desire is the general name under which any passion can put under, it is similar - but not quite - to the Humean

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office.


Wants form a hierarchy. This is the key. Not all wants are on a level; some wants refer to other wants.

Simply put, we can have wants and also wants about our wants - meta-wants. For example, I can want to smoke at time t (this minute) but also want, still at time t, that at time t +1 (a future time) I will not want to smoke. I have a want (now) to smoke and a meta-want that in future I will not to want to smoke. This is the kind of phenomenon Harry Frankfurt was concerned with in 'Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person', Journal of Philosophy, 68, 1971, 5-10.

It this phenomenon that Schopenhauer has in mind. Freedom comes into the picture because even if our intentional actions are determined causally by our wants and desires (on the Humean model) our meta-wants can cause our other wants to weaken or disappear. Our meta-wants have the capacity to free us from our other wants.

@Canada - Area 51 Proposal. I don't think Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures ('Utilitarianism', c.2) comes into it. The want that I want to be rid of may be - yield - a lower pleasure; but I may well want to be rid of it - I may want-not-to-have-that-want - in order to cultivate a want for another lower pleasure, say horse-racing. I may want not to smoke in order to have more money to spend on the horses.


A man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills. In other words, you can choose what you want, but your wants are chosen for you. Your free will is constrained.


I’ve seen this translated as “A man can do what he wills, but cannot will what he wills.”

In German, “will” primarily means want. A better translation would be “A man can do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.” Point being man doesn’t get to pick his desires. Just as you can’t pick who you love or what you love. Your wants and needs are not controlled by you, yourself.

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