The Science of the Will: Morality and the Mind in Nineteenth-Century Germany


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




In the mid-nineteenth century, German scientists of the mind turned a classical, philosophical problem of free will into a scientific problem about the mechanisms of voluntary behavior. Pedagogues, physiologists, psychologists, and logicians subjected the will to experimental scrutiny and identified regular laws of willing. Attempts to naturalize the will uprooted the will from its theological and metaphysical origins as the index of moral freedom and altered prevailing notions of thinking and human subjectivity. Thinking, in particular, was regarded as a type of action that could be quantified. In response to these conceptual changes, contemporary intellectuals insisted upon the moral primacy of a more substantive thinking, independent from action. This project traces the scientific conditions of moral frameworks that centralized the freedom of the thinking faculty, during a time when the question of human freedom was made urgent by the rise of modern social science and the advent of mass politics.