Wittgenstein on the ‘Illusion’ of Free Will

In Philosophical Investigations, section 174, Wittgenstein is discussing the temptation to describe the experience of acting with deliberation (in drawing a line parallel to another, say) as a “quite particular inner” experience. At this point in the text, he has been discussing reading in order to shed light on the concept of understanding, which he had been discussing in relation to rule following, which in turn came up in the very broad discussion of what it means to know the meaning of a word. He addresses the question what it means to suddenly understand and be able to go on, one having (apparently) grasped the rule for a word’s use, which he compares to suddenly understanding how to continue a series of numbers based on an initial segment of the series. In a parenthetical remark at the end of the passage, he says, “(This is connected with the problem of intention, of willing).” Then, in 176, he talks about the temptation to say that acting deliberately in, for example, drawing a line parallel to another, one is under the influence of the original and that one feels this, that there is a particular experience of being guided, being influenced. He rejects this idea and tries to show that it arises only when one reflects on what happens when one acts deliberately (or suddenly understands, or believes or...) and is dissatisfied with what one finds, thinking that acting deliberately in such a case can’t just consist in the fact that “I merely looked, made such-and-such a face, and drew a line” (175). Here he adds the parenthetical remark that these considerations “(... contain the germ of the idea that the will is not a phenomenon).” Note: As others have, Wittgenstein eschews the expression “free will,” the word “free” really being a contrast with “compelled,” which does not mean caused. Water is not compelled, nor forced, to boil by heat.

Wittgenstein would object, then, to a philosopher’s arguing that one’s having free will is a fact of experience, a phenomenon that one need merely observe as one acts deliberately. (I’m sure he would with equal force reject the idea that our having free will is a priori.) As with many other concepts having to do with ‘the inner’, Wittgenstein implores us to resist the temptation to insist that these experiences, which we talk about quite ordinarily, are rarified, indescribable, but nevertheless apparent upon introspection. The temptation is by no means rare.

In this video of an interview with John Searle, the interviewer confidently voices the view that we have the experience of free choice; Searle says it is an ineluctable assumption that we have free will, an assumption that could, however, be based on a “massive illusion.” In the latest episode, Seth tells us that the free will debate isn’t a live issue for him because in his everyday life he experiences having agency. I don’t know exactly what he had in mind, but it prompted me to try to give a place in the discussion to an interesting element of Wittgenstein’s view of the matter.  Whether Seth would argue that his agency is apparent to him through introspection, I don't know (though I suspect not). My point is only that it is common in discussions of free will to refer to one’s experience of agency, whether as an illusion or as a datum that speaks in favour of our having free will.

By denying that the will is a phenomenon, Wittgenstein undermines the idea that the 'experience of free will' is an illusion. That doesn’t imply, however, that what I introspect when acting deliberately is a veridical experience of agency. No. There simply is no such specific experience. Though there are experiences that are characteristic of acting deliberately as opposed to under compulsion, say, these are not experiences of the will in action, so to speak. The real illusion is that there is a specific, indescribable, experience of acting intentionally, an experience that we are all acquainted with. And it is only introspection and reflection that show this isn't so. If there is no specific experience of agency, then one has to ask what the illusion is. In the case of a perceptual illusion, one can say what seems to be so and then specify what is actually so in contrast to the illusion: “The stick looks bent but it’s really straight.” Where are the comparable descriptions regarding the ‘illusion of agency’? Can we say “I had a specific experience I believe to have been the experience of acting freely, but I found subsequently that I wasn’t acting freely. Therefore, that experience must have been an illusion”? I don’t think this accords with actual experience (But then how the fuck do I know what goes on in you?!). It is, rather, something one is tempted to say in defense of practices (holding others and oneself responsible for certain actions) that one has been unable to justify according to strictures imposed upon one by a philosophical training. It is false to say that we have discovered within ourselves the capacity for free action; nor would it be right to say we had deduced it as analytic that humans have free will. But what other source of knowledge is there?! Describe language games and trust yourself to see what’s so (Simple as that!). “Philosophy is a [never-ending] battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” (P.I. 109).

The (marginally-thematically-connected) image is from Derek Jarman's film Wittgenstein.

Randall Miron


  1. Profile photo of Billie Pritchett says


    You might be surprised to find out that Sam Harris comes to a similar conclusion in “Free Will” (incidentally, we’re talking about this book next month in the Free Will discussion in Not Group if you or any other people would be interested…) Harris invites people to introspect the flow of their thoughts (through a kind of mini-meditation where you try not to think) and writes that people would soon realize they have very little control over what they think about or desire. He writes, echoing remarks similar to what you said Wittgenstein wrote, “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

    On another note, you wrote the following: “Can we say ‘I had a specific experience I believe to have been the experience of acting freely, but I found subsequently that I wasn’t acting freely. Therefore, that experience must have been an illusion’? I don’t think this accords with actual experience.” Actually, yes, I think we can say that, and it becomes more apparent when we consider the degrees of influence we have or don’t have over our thoughts and behaviors. In these instances, freedom looks to be a relative capacity, which can be more or less textured given the way we find ourselves functioning in the world. You might find yourself engaging in an activity, like trying to make a relationship work that won’t work, and you realize in retrospect that you had no real control over the success of making it work. You take a test you know statistically half the population scores in the 50th percentile on and you take the same test, with no prep, and limited academic ability anyway, and then after you find yourself in the 50th percentile, realize you never could have done what you did to make a higher score. Human freedom (or the experience anyway) has boundaries but admitting of boundaries to human freedom does not necessitate denying the phenomenon or the phenomenal experience.

  2. Donald says

    As a living creature, I am compelled to eat. It feels to me only that I want to eat, as if I am doing so freely. So I sense the freedom, and do not sense the compulsion.

    This is how I interpret Wittgenstein, as a compatibilist.

    While this makes one of the apparent contradictions go away or “illusory”, it does still not answer whether there is a cash value difference for Seth, just a perspectival difference.

  3. Profile photo of Randall Miron says


    I don’t know what it means to talk about “sensing the freedom.” It sounds odd to say one senses one’s desire to eat (which in any case is not the same as choosing to eat, of course). Do I sense my pain or just have it? Doesn’t one simply want to eat? What is this sensing? One feels hunger pangs, say, or notices one is drooling, but one does not sense that one feels/notices these things. People are inclined to explain their behaviour in certain ways, given the language at their disposal. What do you say to someone who says you don’t really sense freedom, you just SAY after the fact that you felt you acted freely. Compatibilism doesn’t mean I FEEL free but KNOW I’m not. It has to be a form of reconciliation between apparently contradictory beliefs. The kind of compatibility must be logical, conceptual. There are no contradictions in Nature, it’s been said.
    Anyway, aren’t the desire to eat and the compulsion to eat on the same level? Or in the same category? There is still a leap from ‘sensing’ one’s desire, or feeling a compulsion, to actually acting. The experience that precedes the action needn’t be under one’s control. Or are you saying that a compulsion is unconscious and wanting to eat conscious? Our concept of compulsion is, roughly, of a strong but difficult to resist desire, isn’t it? I think our concept of a compulsion in the free will debate is not entirely equivalent to cause. Although we do speak of internal and external compelling forces, I think it is the concept of being forced to CHOOSE against one’s wishes. At this point I think it loses any meaning to ask whether the choice was free or not. Free of what?
    I think what Seth wants is to get rid of the question, since he can’t see how answering it would make any difference to how he lives his life. As Searle argues (though not in service of eliminating the question) in the video link, one can’t live as if one had no choice. You can’t respond to the server who asks for your order that you are just going to wait and see how the causes play out and not choose between the salad and the steak.
    I can’t go on forever here and of course there are many threads in this debate that I sure can’t settle. I find Wittgenstein’s remark fascinating though. And thanks for your interest and your reply, which I hope you did not feel merely compelled to give :-)

      • Profile photo of Donald says

        Hee hee, did that sound awesome or obnoxious? I am just slinging it as always.

        But your responses were wonderful. I clearly should have left out the “I sense freedom” part as philosophers almost always interpret sense as a physical sensation. Instead I should have stuck with, “I want to eat, but I can’t/don’t want to feel it is compulsory.” Since only later from a different perspective do I see it as biological compulsion. So, this is closer to your interpretation that the “compulsion is unconscious and wanting to eat conscious”.

        “I am not free from who I am, or from what I want, but then neither do I want to be.”

        Or so it’s been said. By me. Just now.

  4. Profile photo of Randall Miron says


    That possible similarity to Harris is of interest.

    Wittgenstein himself didn’t actually say (or say something like) the illusion of free will is itself an illusion. I argued (or tried to) that the claim that the experience of free will is illusory is empty, since there is no such phenomenal experience. So it doesn’t work as an argument against free will, from which of course it doesn’t follow that we have free will. In any case, I should have called it a delusion, a false belief in a specific, identifiable experience (phenomenal happening) that doesn’t actually exist. Wittgenstein is trying to chart the course of the temptation to explain the use of words by reference to experiences that prompt or justify the uses of words. So when I say I understand something, does that claim rest on my having introspected a phenomenon called understanding? There is a great temptation to say so if one is under the sway of a particular picture of how our minds operate. (I’m not pretending or claiming to know ‘how our minds operate’!) Check out that section of P.I. to see what he’s up to.

    Re Harris, how is the fact that I often have no control over the course of my thoughts (and many other things of course) supposed to show that I have no free will? I can only hold my breath for so long. But I can hold it, and although this sometimes happens independently of any decision to do so, it certainly does often follow such a decision. The question will still be asked whether that degree of freedom is real freedom, whatever that is supposed to be. It is still up for discussion what it is we are actually calling free choice, isn’t it? I think mostly it refers to the absence forces impinging on one, whether from outside as in the old gun to the head situation or to internal psychological forces or drugs or brain lesions and such. It is characteristic of free action that one is not surprised by it, as one might be to see one’s leg jerk forward after a nerve is struck, say.The reference to a specific experience which one is acquainted with but can’t describe arises in the debate only at a certain point, a point at which it appears ad hoc. Perhaps there is a temptation to say that free action can’t consist merely in the absence of forces; it must rest on the presence of something, an inner force that ought to be perceptible.

    These discussions have no natural stopping point, but I’m choosing to stop here, or hereabouts.
    Thanks for your interest and for your reply. I hope my response is at least semi-coherent and worth reading.

    • Profile photo of Billie Pritchett says

      Hello, Randall:

      Thank you for your reply and clarifications.

      But just to check: Wittgenstein believes that we have no experience of free will as an illusion rather than that we have no experience of free will? Or both?

      Regarding Harris: It’s not a position I endorse, but I mentioned him because I thought what you were saying that Wittgenstein wrote that even the idea that we have this experience of free will is an illusion, and we can see that if we realize introspectively that we have no control over the thoughts we do and the things we want.

      You mentioned Wittgenstein’s project… I’m not a Wittgenstein scholar, but I’ve read his “Philosophical Investigations,” “On Certainty,” “Tractatus…” and a book on Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus.” As for what at least later Wittgenstein is up to, I have a strong appreciation for his advice to avoid the “bewitchment of language.” Ironically, I think this bewitchment occurs in philosophy of language, as with, for example the introduction of such terms as “sense” and “reference.” The problem, though, doesn’t seem to me to be that idiosyncratic or special terms are used, necessarily, but that the terms give us a “wrong picture” of language, as Wittgenstein would say; that is, they lead us down blind alleys for how language works. Something similarly could be argued, I suppose, for the free will debate, but it will need a strong defense, I think. I don’t think much hinges on the term “free will,” and what seems to be at issue, really, is human freedom. Does a universe governed by natural laws make it so that all events are necessitated by their causes? It looks like there’s a real problem here, and not just some kind of language game. There’s something really to be investigated here, and maybe as simple puny humans we just can’t answer the question. Maybe like the citizens of Flatland who just can’t figure out what it would actually mean to experience the world three-dimensionally, we can’t get outside our own skins to see what a reasonable solution to addressing the compatibility of human freedom and the way the cosmos works would look like.

    • Profile photo of Billie Pritchett says


      Glad you posted the link.

      At least part of what the article addressed is the way in which free will has to be assumed when you move up to the human-size level of explanation. I think that’s correct, and at least for that reason it can’t be dispensed with. This goes for informal explanation and more rigorous inquiry in the sciences.

      It seems to me the rub is when you try to see how the physics and chemistry can bridge to the biology. And just because we’re constituted like we are as human beings, there just might be no answer to that. Maybe it’s the case we can ask the question but we can’t ever give a satisfactory answer.

      • C. M. Frederick says

        I definitely agree with the dubiousness of a satisfactory answer… I find free will intractable because of myriad reasons, including: If there is free will can a group of people, an organization or a nation, possess it? Does an “all things being equal” predicate even make sense? Is strict determinism negated or altered by simultaneity? What “is” simultaneity? Then throw in randomness, knowledge and lack thereof (generally speaking when making a decision) and higher order free will ideas like choosing NOT to do something.

        It gets very deep very quickly!

  5. says

    Hi Randall. I have a lot of sympathy with what you’ve written here. I would add that talk of whether or not we have free will doesn’t seem to serve any useful purpose. I would be more inclined to take such talk seriously if it had its origins in ordinary language. Although I have little knowledge of the origins of such talk, I strongly suspect it was started by theologians and/or philosophers.

    There are some limited useful applications of the term “free will” in ordinary language, such as when we ask, “Did the hostage record the message of his own free will?” In that case there is a meaningful distinction being made: the hostage was coerced or not. In the philosophical case, however, it’s hard to see any real distinction, anything really at stake.

    Much of the philosophical discussion of free will seems to be motivated by a desire to argue that we can or can’t have moral responsibility, based on the premise that we can’t have moral responsibility unless we have free will. But few people (on either side of the free will divide) seem to stop to question that premise. Is it even meaningful? I think attributions of moral responsibility are a feature of ordinary language, and if we wish to discuss that subject we could so better without introducing the misguided philosophical concept of “free will”.

    • Profile photo of Billie Pritchett says

      Hello, Richard:

      I think I can understand the appeal of ordinary language philosophy, and there might be something valuable with finding out what people’s intuitions are regarding what has been taken up in the philosophical literature. You could do it for terms like “free will” or “could have done otherwise,” or in philosophy of mind and philosophy of language you could do it for “sense,” “reference,” “content,” “idea,” or “rule,” “rule-following,” or “language games,” to take some favorites of Wittgenstein’s and the later Wittgensteinians. This has been attempted with experimental philosophers, to greater and lesser degrees of seriousness, and such activities if they’re to be done have to be done seriously. It might not be that helpful, for instance, to do a survey of an Intro to Philosophy class to find out what their intuitions are.

      Nevertheless, I think ordinary language philosophy or appeals to ordinary language have serious limitations. If taken to its logical extreme, the need to appeal to ordinary language would necessarily rule out any innovations to the language that have made for extraordinary scientific progress. To take a paradigm case, let’s assume as in the apocryphal story Newton was really interested in why apples would fall to the ground. Well, the best explanation up to that point was “They just do.” Or, if you want to appeal to Aristotle, his explanation was something like “Because objects like to be near the ground.” It’s actually a very interesting and creative state of mind that someone would have to be in to even ask the question. And since we don’t have any good intuitions captured in our ordinary language, we have to make use of metaphors and ordinary language and give terms new meanings so that we can make any headway to explain and predict things in the world. I mean, it’s not a novel concept now, but there was once a time when “gravity” was a novel concept. And there were novel ways in which physics, for example, co-opted ordinary language terms like “force,” “mass,” “attraction,” and so on.

      With talk of free will it looks like what’s going on is people are trying to do something similar. They’re trying to take some ordinary understanding and give the terms we use to talk about ourselves and our actions clearer definition, definition that might begin with ordinary language usage and basic intuitions but as soon as we progress high enough in approaching the problem, the common sense concepts might be abandoned altogether–if what emerges is a real explanation of the phenomenon. I will agree that it looks like nobody has made much progress on trying to find out how to even pose the questions reasonably intelligibly about what is going on with free will or what is at stake, or whether or not freedom could be compatible with a more or less deterministic cosmos. But if so, these are problems that don’t have to do with language, but something even deeper, perhaps having to do with our intrinsic nature to be the kinds of beings we are and be able to understand the nature of human freedom.

      • says

        Hi Billie. As I haven’t read much by the philosophers usually associated with the term OLP, I prefer to call my views “broadly Wittgensteinian”, rather than “OLP”. That said, I think I know enough about OLP to say that the “ordinary” in OLP does not refer necessarily to folk language. It can probably be taken in more than one way, but primarily it sets OLP in opposition to the belief that there is some ideal language waiting to be discovered by philosophers. At the same time, I think OLP philosophers often do appeal to the language of the folk. But that is certainly not to deny that there can be specialist senses of words. Words get their meaning from how they are used, and specialist terms can get their meanings from specialist usage. I think you have to attend to the reasons why I am invoking the language of the folk in the given case, and not take me as invoking a general rule that only folk usage can be relevant in any case. More generally, please don’t take me to a “logical extreme”, because I am not giving universal theories that extend to extremes.

        The problem I have with the philosophical debate over the existence of “free will” is that it is made meaningful neither by ordinary (folk) usage nor by the usage of philosophers. I tried to cover both bases, however inadequately.

        I’ll very briefly address your analogy with science. Our scientific concepts develop over time because they are being used to model our environment, and the concepts develop along with the models. That development is useful, in that it enables us better to predict and explain our environment. (Much the same can be said for our everyday talk about the world.) But philosophers do not use the concept of “free will” to predict or explain anything. They seem to be only in the business of answering the question “do we have free will?” for its own sake, or to justify a conclusion about moral responsibility. (I’m not saying that words can only be made meaningful by their role in models. Language has many other functions besides modelling reality. Here I’m just addressing your analogy with science.)

        • says

          Hello, Richard:

          Thank you for your response.

          Regarding the last paragraph, I agree with you that not all philosophers are not using free will as a concept to give some explanatory account. However, I think some are, and so are some natural and social scientists when they make appeals to it. Seems like at least some people are trying to find a decent way to formulate the problem so it could be amenable to further study (Searle, for one, for better or worse, whom I mentioned in another PEL blog post and who we are talking about in a Not School group…) or to help explain other issues, like the one you mentioned, about the degrees of responsibility we can attribute to individuals given the various levels of freedom those individuals might or might not have. There is a real rub. I don’t know if it’s even possible to formulate the problem sufficiently and then to proceed from there but some people are making an effort to do so. And the lack of ability to do so might just be that we are not the kinds of creatures that could understand how our intuitions about human freedom fit in with our understanding of physical law, just as Flatlanders can’t understand what a three-dimensional world would look like.

  6. Profile photo of Randall Miron says


    ” I thought what you were saying that Wittgenstein wrote that even the idea that we have this experience of free will is an illusion, and we can see that if we realize introspectively that we have no control over the thoughts we do and the things we want.”

    That is not what I’m saying. I would, as I said in my first reply, rather call it a delusion than an illusion. I don’t mean that we see we don’t have free will because we see that we don’t really control our thoughts or desires. I mean there is no phenomenal content called “willing”, that to will something does not consist in a particular ‘mental movement’ or mental act. Wouldn’t I have to will the enactment of this mental act, in which case we’d be no further ahead in understanding? We can not ignore context, circumstances, when we describe something. Free action is not so called because of some experience, some sense datum, of whatever kind. I am not saying that Wittgenstein denies we have free will. I was really taking my lead from the bit about the will not being a phenomenon, which is not to say there is no such thing as voluntary action. Yet to affirm it is to fall into a philosophical trap of having to explain or justify this ‘claim’. First thing is to get clear about how we use the language we use to talk about voluntary and involuntary action, freely chosen and coerced acts, causes, compulsions, etc. This may give us some important insight into how we are/have been constrained to conceive of things, but it doesn’t preclude conceptual innovation, or the alteration of social practices. But then we are dealing with different concepts. Trying to talk about intrinsic human nature is of course fraught with difficulty. It is so difficult to pry apart sense and truth. Or maybe it makes no sense. Wittgenstein does not argue that human beings determine what is true and false by deciding how to talk. But there is something right about that.
    But I have music practice today and I must study up a bit on a few tunes before the folks arrive. I find Wittgenstein so fascinating and so penetrating and always want to continue the conversation.
    Thanks again for your interest and thoughtful replies.

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