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The difference between voluntary and involuntary actions


Philosophy and neurology
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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I had begun to develop an interest in the nervous system, interested in voluntary movement and what it was for a movement to be voluntary and how it was executed and how the nervous system implemented these actions and how it implemented perception and so forth, that I had begun to get interested in.  And I came under the influence of some rather eminent teachers, people like Horace Barlow, for example, who was a great visual physiologist, and Richard Keynes, who the Professor of Physiology.  So that, I think, fairly early on in my time in Cambridge I was beginning to move in the area of natural sciences towards a neurological emphasis in medicine.

But I also did a what was called a half subject in the history and philosophy of science. Now, that may have been under the influence of the books I had seen and partly dipped into from my father's library, and I still have many of them back there, because as I say, my father had studied philosophy at Cambridge, though the philosophy that he had studied in the early 1900s was very different from the philosophy that prevailed after the war.  It was very metaphysical and Hegelian and so forth.

But nevertheless I can see from the many additions of Russell's work, The Analysis of Mind and so forth, that I had come under the influence of… and as he had come under the influence of a more modern type of philosophy, so that by the time I went to Cambridge and was a student of a man called Russ Hanson, an American physicist who was interested in the philosophical principles of science… had written a very influential book called Patterns of Discovery, and he introduced me in our supervisions to the ideas of Wittgenstein.  And Wittgenstein had died, I think, only two or three years before I came up to Cambridge and I was introduced to the later Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein of whom Russell disapproved, you know.  It was the Wittgenstein after the Tractatus and the philosophical investigations that I began reading, and they seemed to me to be very interesting and obviously have a bearing on what it was for something to be a voluntary action.

I remember there’s this line that he has in the investigations, he says, ‘If I subtract from the sentence I lift my arm, the sentence my arm goes up, what is left over?’ and that preoccupied me, and I was by that time really interested in what it was for something to be a voluntary action, and where did it originate? I knew where it got out of the nervous system in what Sherrington had called the final common path, and there was the last neuron in the spinal cord beyond which there was no way of interfering with the effect on the muscle.  But then I was interested, as I suppose Sherrington was, and others, was how did volition in the start, where did it initiate, what decided what was going to happen in order to lift my arm as opposed to discovering, to my surprise, that it had gone up?

And that continues to be a preoccupation of mine and I suppose it’s related in some way to what I do in the theatre. I am studying voluntary actions and the interactions between volitional subjects.

Jonathan Miller (1934-2019) was a British theatre and opera director. Initially studying medicine at Cambridge, Sir Jonathan Miller came to prominence with the production of the British comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe. Following on from this success he embarked on a career in the theatre, directing a 1970 West End production of The Merchant of Venice starring Laurence Olivier. He also started directing opera, famously producing a modern, Mafia-themed version of Rigoletto.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Patterns of Discovery, The Analysis of Mind, Philosophical Investigations, Cambridge University, Horace Barlow, Richard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Norwood Russell Hanson, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Scott Sherrington

Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008