Cult of the Will



Cult of the Will: Nervousness and German Modernity

The period from the late 19th century to the First World War has been described as the age of nervousness, the age of numbers, the age of speed, the age of psychoanalysis, the age of mass media and the age of the “attraction.” In this book, I examine another paradigm of modernity: modernity as the “age of motivation.” Cult of the Will is an unabashedly wide-ranging study. My analyses travel from hypnosis research to self-help manuals to gymnastic movements, dance, pedagogical treatises and literature and visual arts. The book does not set out to write an institutional history of any of these domains, but it does seek to identify something very specific and common to all of them: the desire, around 1900, to forge techniques of self-cultivation and everyday performance that might answer specific problems of high capitalism, with its pervasive sense of existential risk, intellectual and affective disorientation, and mental and physical dissolution. While partly derived from older forms of hygiene stretching back to the 18th century and beyond (medieval spiritual exercises), such techniques responded to new circumstances and assumed new forms – forms focused above all on the prized acquisition of “willpower.” Modernity’s efforts to train the will — a term no longer understood in its Schopenhauerian interpretation as a general force or a “thing in itself,” but rather as a specific faculty for organizing and regulating energies — clearly overlapped with any number of other developments, including the triad of race, class and gender. But the premise of this book is that such efforts need to be examined in their own right. Based on a medico-theoretical underpinning that was anything but obvious (the doctrine of the psychomotor efficacy of ideas), the project of “will training” influenced a whole range of discoures and practices, from athletics to mental hygiene and aesthetics. Above all, the astounding preoccupation with the will around 1900 ushered in a range of performative techniques for governing the attention, many of which are still a part of our understanding of self-cultivation today.


Selected Reviews

“In this well-researched and fascinating study, Cowan shows how causal and passive views of human subjectivity are displaced, around the fin de siècle, by an emphasis in German popular medicine, economics, pedagogy, aesthetics, and psychology on the teleological, internally driven nature of human action, which in turn is enlisted to counter the modern self’s inheritance of a nervous disposition. […] Cowan has admirably amended any view of modernity for which the decisive paradigm is the Freudian relinquishment of will to unconscious forces or the collapse of the subject’s integrity, showing self-mastery to be a neglected technique of the self developed in response to what Simmel called the ‘tragedy’ of modern culture.”

–Jennifer Gosetti-Forencei, Modern Language Review


“Central to contemporary notions of nerves and their cure was the will, an equally pliable concept, and this is the subject of Michael Cowan’s excellent book. The will, according to numerous late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century doctors, psychologists, philosophers, educators and artists, was the key to controlling the (nervous) body and resisting its subordination to the forces of modernity. Like a muscle, the will needed to be conditioned and strengthened so that it could master the body and assert active human agency, particularly as modern conditions threatened to turn human beings into passive, soulless cogs in a mechanised world. The cult or culture of the will then paralleled and overlapped with contemporaneous artistic movements like expressionism which revelled in artistic subjectivity, free creativity and spiritedness. […] Its thorough treatment of these crucial and under-researched topics make this book a most welcome addition to the history of medicine, modern European cultural history, German studies and the history of the body. Cowan writes with precision and elegance, and his explication of philosophical, artistic and especially literary materials expands the canvas upon which these themes are usually discussed and shows the breadth and power of their cultural resonance.

–Paul Lerner, Social History of Medicine


“This story has been often told, but Cowan has found a fascinating and altogether novel way of retelling it, through the lens of the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with overcoming this condition of will-impairment, or abulia. Cowan has uncovered an entire industry dedicated to this project. […] While this discourse about the will and its imagined restoration has an obviously defensive, anti-modern dimension, it also represents, as Cowan argues, a reworking of an eminently modern theme, one with roots in eighteenth-century discourses of popular hygiene and education. Ultimately Cowan sees will-training as part of the “longue durée of bourgeois identity formation dating back to the Enlightenment” (p. 71). It is one of the main virtues of his book that it succeeds in uncovering a genealogy of will-training both far more complex and much broader than those attuned only to the term’s resonance in National Socialist ideology might anticipate.”

–Andreas Killen, Central European History


“The author provides a wide-ranging yet deep analysis of Willenskultur, i.e., the attempt to overcome the loss of will and, with it, agency. […] Cowan deftly incorporates many contemporary fin-de-siècle examples to argue his central contention that attempts at control were widespread and deemed crucial for a rapidly transforming German society. Summing Up: Recommended.”

— M. Deshmukh, Choice Reviews



Cult of the Will is a superb study which covers familiar terrain with an entirely new approach. Cowan provides very fine examples of interdisciplinary interpretation. His book goes far beyond providing a history of nervousness. It finds the implications of psychiatric theory in the internal structure of film, architecture, dance, and literature.”

–Daniel Purdy



“Cowan’s work presents a pathbreaking and truly meaningful discovery not only in the field of German Studies. It belongs to the multiple merits of this book that it participates in the opening and development of a new discursive space within the Humanities. Over the past two decades, much of the historical research on the time between 1850 and 1950 concentrated on the “discovery” of the human body-a historical discovery that took place above all against the hitherto unchallenged dominance of the Cartesian paradigm, and the control and repression of the Christian religious authorities. What Cowan presents is a tendency, during the same historical period, to “master” the body and its fickleness (the “nervousness” in Cowan’s subtitle), a tendency that had a strong impact not only on certain contexts and environments in Western intellectual life but also undoubtedly in the formation of Fascist ideologies and practices.”

–Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht




List of Illustrations


Introduction: Reimagining the Will in the Age of Nervousness

1 Capitalism and Abulia Entr’acte: Willpower in the Age of Enterprise

2 Healing the Will: Popular Medicine and the Emergence of Will Therapy

3 Training the Will: Gymnastics and Body Culture

4 Educating the Will: Reform Pedagogy and the School of Rhythm

5 Mapping the Will: European Nervousness and American Willpower.

Afterword: Notes on the Persistence of Will Therapy