On Can't vs Won't and the Will

I had a conversation with a friend earlier regarding the distinction between "can't" and "won't". It seems straightforward at first, something taught as a joke in grade school: "can I go to the bathroom?" "yes, you can, but may you? No." But this example doesn't explain much; the smug teacher asserts their authority over the student, but what is the difference here, really? The student isn't permitted to go to the bathroom, under threat of [...], which may well be practically expressed as a "can't".

Let's try a rephrasing. The teacher says instead, "you're physically capable of going to the bathroom, but I won't let you." In terms of the teacher's perspective, the true statement is "I can't prevent you from trying to leave, but I won't give you permission to go." Now we have our first distinction between a "can't" and a "won't". What do they mean?

In first analysis, "I can't prevent you from trying to leave" means that the teacher acknowledges something outside of their will: the student has the capacity to move their own body and to attempt to leave, regardless of what the teacher wants. However, the "I won't give you permission to go" is an assertion of the teacher's will. A tacit threat: "your physical actions may be outside of my own will, but I will take active recourse against you if you attempt to leave. I will punish you for going against me, so you should do as I say."

In invoking a "can't", the teacher notices something that we may call "nature", forces acting beyond their control, strict laws of motion and potential which delimit the space of possibility inherent in any situation. But in invoking a "won't", the teacher performs an act of will, or more precisely, makes a promise: "so long as I stand by my prior statement (so long as my spoken promise is good), I will act using what power I possess in accordance with my desire (I will carry out what I have promised)."

The vague outlines are starting to appear, of the "can't" as a sort of metaphysical statement on inherent boundaries existing in the physical world, the "won't" as a statement of individual intent within the symbolic or social world. Consider it in terms of "doing": the "can't" says "doing it is not possible given that I exist in a world of external rules", whereas the "won't" says "I am perfectly able to do it, but I am imposing a rule, as if from an external source, under which I am not permitted to do it". To put it more simply, the "can't" is impossible, while the "won't" is possible, but "not permitted" based on my own decision.

The effective distinction comes down to agency. If "nature" is the preventative agent, then I can't. But if I am the preventative agent, then I won't. And yet, the two terms have a sort of slippage. Consider the statement "I can't come to the party tonight." Unless prompted by a material issue ("my car broke down"), is this not really a "won't", a decision made by the agent to skip the party? What's going on?

The most straightforward read is that a "won't" slides into a "can't" when the deciding agent wants to avoid "being seen as" responsible for the outcome. It deflects the justification for the decision, its causal origin, from their own will, to some external source. But for many, the slide from "won't" into "can't" isn't itself an intentional or willful decision; it's as if some external-yet-still-internal force "made" them skip the party, against their beliefs about their own desire to attend.

We call this an "excuse": "I really wanted to go, but I just got so tired, so I can't come." What this does is present the "tiredness" as an external, almost mythological force acting upon the agent, preventing them from attending. In truth, it was a decision made by the agent to prioritize their tiredness over the party. Yet, this truth is invisible to many: they maintain an honest belief that they made no decision.

Ironically, then, one can bring more of life within their will by acknowledging that, yes, I made a choice here. The cause wasn't "my tiredness", like some threatening tiger, but my own decision to attend to this tiredness. It is in this way that a desire to avoid blame or social consequence, by externalizing one's own choices, leads to depression, an inability to bring life under one's own control. One feels assaulted by external forces, not realizing that these forces were created by them, as a means of defense, against this very same [...] originally threatened by that grade school teacher, who refused the bathroom pass. One's attempt to control others, to carefully get what one wants while avoiding consequences, becomes the prison controlling them.

What shadowy forces lie behind this distinction, between nature and the will? The world of society, of Man interacting with Man, has a far more malleable quality than the world of Nature, of God. Yet, is it not what we call "technology" that introduces this same quality of malleability into nature, enacting new "hooks" for the will? With the expansion of technology and thus the will, more and more do we become subject not to the hard laws of Nature or God, but to the soft laws of Men. And as with the example above, does this not create fear of the [...], the giving up of will, alongside the enactment of one's own prison? Technology in this sense appears as both our great savior, freeing us from absolute necessity and conflict with nature, as well as our great enslaver, expanding the clash of wills, the war of Man against Man, raising the bars of our inner prisons ever higher. And the key to this prison is, now more than ever, education and mastery: the raising of the individual will to the challenges one places before it. Through this, one can unmask the terror of the [...] for what it truly is: the desire of the Other.


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