Home > Language games in philosophy > Characteristics of voluntary and involuntary acts

Characteristics of voluntary and involuntary acts


In The Brown Book (p.152), Wittgenstein asks us to compare different cases of voluntary vs. involuntary acts. Wittgenstein describes cases in which the meaning of “voluntary act” as it might be expressed in a description of the case of “lifting a heavy weight” is characterized by an experience of effort.  The act of writing voluntarily, however, does not contain this sense of an experience of effort.  Thus whether or not effort is at all characteristic of the meaning of “voluntary act” (or volition in general) may or may not obtain in our actual cases–cases in which we ascribe a particular event as characterizing a “voluntary act”.  He goes on to describe an analagous case:

Further compare the lifting of your hand when you lift a weight with it with lifting your hand when, e.g., you point to some object above you.  This will certainly be regarded as a voluntary act, though the element of effort will most likely be entirely absent; in fact this raising of the arm to point to an object is very much like raising the eye to look at it, and here we can hardly conceive of an effort.  (Wittgenstein, Brown Book, 132-133)

While he does describe the sense of “voluntary act” in the case of lifting a heavy object, he does not positively characterize it with regard to “voluntarily pointing your finger” or “voluntarily writing”.

Do we use the expression “to point one’s finger” in a way that is absent or independent (or irrelevant) to the act being voluntary?  Don’t we usually use that expression as if the audience already knew it was voluntary?

“I can’t see where you’re pointing at.”

In that expression, the sense of “pointing” already appears voluntary.  The basis of the question rests partly on the fact that the subject does not share the intentional relation purported by his peer’s act of pointing; that is, the relation between the pointer and what’s being pointed at.  If asked “in what sense can you not see what I’m pointing at?” the original speaker may respond: “well, certainly I don’t mean that I am blind in the area that your act of pointing is intended to direct my attention”. The ‘failure to see’ here refers to the intended object, not the experience of a part of a visual field where the intended object ought to be seen.

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