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any theory predicated on the assumption that individual purposes, choice, decisions, etc. are a decisive element in social action. The polar opposite of voluntarism is DETERMINISM. However, often in sociology there is an acceptance that it is appropriate for theories to include both voluntaristic and deterministic elements, e.g. structural determinants which constrain but do not necessarily eliminate choice. Talcott PARSONS (1937), for example, refers to his theory of action as ‘voluntaristic’, in that it includes reference to 'subjective’ elements and individual ‘moral’ choice. But this does not preclude him from advancing accounts of universal FUNCTIONAL PREREQUISITES. See also ACTION THEORY, STRUCTURE AND AGENCY, METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM, FREE WILL.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(a term introduced by F. Tonnies in 1883), an idealist movement in philosophy that believes will to be the highest principle of being. In giving will first place in spiritual being, voluntarism stands in opposition to intellectualism (or rationalism), that is, to idealist philosophical systems that consider intellect and reason to be the basis of that which exists.

Elements of voluntarism can be found as early as the philosophy of Augustine, who saw in will the basis of all other spiritual processes, and in the philosophy of Duns Scotus, with his emphasis on the primacy of will over intellect (voluntas est superior intellectu, “will is higher than thought”). A premise of the new voluntarism was I. Kant’s doctrine of the primacy of practical reason. According to Kant, although the existence of free will can be neither proved nor refuted theoretically, practical reason demands that we postulate freedom of will, for otherwise moral law would lose all meaning. Proceeding from this, J. G. Fichte saw in will the basis of personality and in the exercising of will by the ego the absolute creative principle of being, the source of the spiritual self-generation of the world. Moreover, in Fichte (as in Kant and the later exponents of German classical philosophy F. W. Schelling and G. Hegel) will is rational by its nature and the source of realization of the moral principle. In contrast A. Schopenhauer, in whose philosophy voluntarism first takes shape as an independent current, gives an irrationalist interpretation of will as the blind, nonrational, purposeless first principle of the world. Schopenhauer construes the Kantian thing-in-itself as will, appearing on various levels of objectification. Schopenhauer regarded consciousness and intellect as being one of the secondary manifestations of will. For Schopenhauer, as for E. Hartmann, voluntarism is closely connected with pessimism and the conception of the senselessness of the world process, whose source is unconscious and blind will. The voluntaristic ideas of Schopenhauer were one of the sources of the philosophy of F. Nietzsche.

The term “voluntarism” is also used to characterize social and political practices that do not take into consideration the objective laws of the historical process and are guided by the subjective desires and arbitrary decisions of those in control.


Engels, F.Anti-Dühing. Moscow, 1969. Pages 111-12.
Knauer, R. Der Voluntarismus. Berlin, 1907.
Marcus, J. Intellektualismus und Voluntarismus in der modernen Philosophic. Düsseldorf, 1918.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Several familiar components of his account of the national liberation struggle apply more broadly, however, to an account of voluntarist political practice in general.
Such self-reliance points to another basic feature of a voluntarist approach: its commitment to the here and now, to decisive action in the present moment, and its consequent rejection of terms that proceed through deferral, 'reform' or 'development'.
When one places the voluntarist account of moral involuntariness into this context, the result is a profoundly mechanistic (29) understanding of human agency.
(33) In Ruzic, the Court explained that the nature of the threat and the potential for an alternative course of action must be assessed on a subjective-objective basis, as against "the reasonable person similarly situated." (34) These requirements belie the voluntarist account.
But that is exactly what we need to get the voluntarist into trouble.
This Cudworthy argument--for as I will be arguing, it is well worth chewing on again--obviously trades on the fact that the voluntarist's view is one about what explains why we ought to do things.
According to the voluntarist tradition, special obligations arise only from voluntary contractual relationships.
The best-known voluntarist tradition is libertarianism.
This is the somewhat tautological position adopted by those who refer to a fundamental hypothetical norm, be they voluntarists such as Anzilotti for whom this hypothetical norm is pacta sunt servanda or normativists like Kelsen for whom "the fundamental norm is the norm which institutes the factual state of custom as a law-creating act."(9)
To say this, of course, is to invoke the other branch of Hart's responsibility criterion, but Duff contends that this too will prove unsatisfactory for the voluntarist. However, he does not simply claim, as we have done, that there is no good reason to suppose that duress eliminates the capacity to obey the law.
Now the will's necessitation by the final end was a claim that virtually all late thirteenth-century thinkers, voluntarists and intellectualists alike, accepted.
In some sense this is a book about the historical antecedents of Scotus's voluntarism, concerning itself with intellectualism only to the extent that it shapes voluntarist arguments.