Chapter 21: The Relation of Volition
to Interest, Effort and Desire
James Rowland Angell
The foregoing chapter has brought to our notice certain of the rudimentary features of voluntary action. We have traced the general development by means of which impulsive and other primary forms of movement set up sensory excitation, which is then appropriated by attention and converted either directly or indirectly as imagery into a mechanism of control over the movements. We have also remarked the tendency of attention in volition to produce the semi-conscious, or nonconscious, quasi-automatic acts which we call habits, and its further tendency to pass on, as soon as such habitual coordinations are established, to the formation of yet other habits. In the present chapter we must examine certain of the wider and more general characteristics of volition, and especially its relations to effort, interest, and desire.
Theory of Selective Attention in Volition.-- When we described in the last chapter the manner in which choice is accomplished by means of the selective activity of attention, which rejects certain ideas and clings to others, we made no special attempt to explain why attention displays these preferences. Indeed, no ultimate explanation can be given for these decisions, any more than an ultimate explanation can be given for the constitution of the sun. But in a proximate way we can get at the reason, and we find it is connected very closely with our whole view of the nature of organic life and the significance of mind for living creatures.
Spontaneous Attention. -- In our account of attention, early in the book, we emphasised the basal nature of what we called spontaneous or non-voluntary attention, i. e., attention directed freely and without compulsion in a manner expressive of the mind's inner interests. We have recently been discussing a parallel fact in the motor region under the name of impulse. When we put these two groups of considerations together, we find that the psychophysical organism manifests, both on the Psychical and the physiological sides, definite projective tendencies. Certain kinds of movement, certain kinds of objects, appeal to us at once natively and without reflection. We come into the world, so to speak, with a bias already favouring certain experiences at the cost of other possible ones. Moreover, we vary from one another very markedly as regards the special directions of this bias. So far, then, as choice comes down to a question of attention to ideas, we may be sure that by virtue of this spontaneous characteristic of attention certain ideas will from the first be given preference over others.
If we take the situation on the level of our own adult consciousness, we find that we are naturally disposed to attend to those ideas which immediately interest us, rather than to those which do not. But when we ask the further question, why they interest us, we can only point again to the spontaneous and impulsive nature of attention. We get back here finally to the admission that both the hereditary and the personal history of each of us has produced differences in our impulsive and spontaneous modes of acting which we all recognise in one another, and for which we can offer no detailed explanation. Fortunately, however, we can point out somewhat more intimately certain of the fundamental features of interest as a mode of consciousness, and this we may briefly undertake.
Interest. -- Interest has sometimes been treated by psychologists as one of the intellectual feelings. In the case of mere
(364) curiosity the reason for this is fairly obvious. Indeed, we mentioned curiosity as one of these feelings, when we were analysing affective consciousness. But if we consider the type of interest which we feel in an absorbing pursuit, a game, an experiment, or a business venture, then we recognise that such interest, however truly it may display affective characteristics, is a phenomenon which belongs conspicuously among the conative processes of mental life. To bring out the point it is sometimes said that "we may give attention, but we always take interest." This statement discloses the positively active, self -expressive, self-assertive nature of interest. We have observed that attention is always in point of fact an expression of organic activity, but the subjective difference between listless attention to a tedious subject and the kind of attention we give to things which interest us is unmistakable.
Stimulus to Interest. -- Like other psychical experiences, interest always has some stimulus. However completely absorbed we may conceivably become in our own merely subjective feelings, interest always has some object to which it refers, and the object is definitely recognised. This gives us at once a point of identity and a point of difference between pure impulse and interest. Both are internally projective, internally expressive, but one has a recognised object toward which it is directed, whereas the other at first has not. Spontaneous attention may be a primary mental activity. Interest is always secondary. It is a conscious phenomenon attaching to objects of which we have already had some experience. When we seek to discover what attributes an object must possess in order to be interesting, we are forced back at once upon uninstructive generalities. We may say, for example, that all objects which call out emotion are likely to be interesting-in a broad meaning of the word. But we have instantly to admit that in the main we cannot say in advance of the actual test with each individual whether
(365) an object will call out an emotion or not. The peculiarities of personal constitution, the vicissitudes of personal history, the reigning mood, these and a thousand other factors may all enter in to modify the reaction.
In the same general way it is sometimes said that strange things are interesting. But this statement also has limitations of a serious character. Things may be so strange as to be utterly meaningless to us, and in such cases we are essentially oblivious to them. The behaviour of primitive peoples confronted for the first time with the paraphernalia of civilisation is replete with illustrations of this fact. Again, the affairs of our daily routine are said to interest us, because we are accustomed to them. If this assertion of interest in routine were always true, which, unfortunately, perhaps, is not the case, the explanation offered for the fact is evidently in flat contradiction with the implication of the previous instance of interest in strange things. Indeed, considered impartially, it is difficult to discern any reason why either strange or familiar things should be per se interesting simply by virtue of their familiarity or strangeness.
The moment we accept the view that the individual, as born into the world, has certain predispositions toward spontaneous attention in given directions, just as he has native impulsive movements, we instantly get a standpoint which renders intelligible the different forms of interest which different individuals reveal, even though we may be quite unable to account specifically for the special interests which any particular person evinces.
Attention and Interest as Organising Activities.-- When we recall the fact that attention is essentially an organising activity, bringing into relation with one another the various objects toward which it is successively directed, we can readily appreciate how the existence of spontaneous attention should, at a very early date in the life of each of us, serve to establish a positive and systematised predisposition to emphasise
(366) certain interests and obliterate others. To the child of strongly artistic bent everything is absorbingly interesting which touches in any way upon art, and all other interests tend to become subservient to this, on pain of absolute suppression. With most of us spontaneous attention runs out to welcome a miscellaneous range of objects and experiences, and the development of a single paramount interest is often slow or altogether wanting.
There is nothing incompatible (crede experto) in a boy's being thoroughly interested in both fishing and geometry. The incompatibility arises only when one interest assumes the right to control the other permanently, or at improper seasons. While spontaneous attention is, therefore, primarily responsible for the differentiation of our interests, the subsequent course of development involves the coordination of these interests with one another. In this process we call into play in varying measures our reflective abilities and thus elaborate, each for himself, a certain hierarchy of interests. Not that this undertaking is, perhaps, ever accomplished with a definite recognition of what is in progress. But as adults we can all discern that such a process has actually been going forward in us. In childhood our interests were chaotic, disconnected, unordered. In maturity they are fairly well marked out and related to one another. Many of the adolescent and childish interests have disappeared altogether. The interests in toys and in dancing may have evaporated. In their stead we find interests in the home, in our professions, in certain kinds of amusement, etc.
It may be said that, after all, this elimination and precipitation of interests which we find characterising adult life is again explicable in the last resort only by the action of spontaneous attention. This is probably true in so far as it means that in the last analysis the explanation of what vitally interests us is to be found in our native constitution. But in distinction from the cruder expressions of this spontaneous
(367) attention in childhood and infancy, the conditions in later life reveal a much more reflective and rational exercise of the function. Moreover, we have at this point to remember once again that man is from beginning to end a social creature; he is constantly under the pressure of social influences; and a large part of the explanation for the special directions which attention finally does take, in building-up the interests of each one of us, will be found to lie in the effects of the social rewards and punishments meted out to us by our companions.
Put a child into a group of religious ascetics to grow up and the chances are that the only interests which will really get opportunity to live and thrive will be those which are conformable to the ideals of such a community. On the other hand, let him be cast among pirates, and a totally different group of interests will blossom forth. This is not because the child is a hypocrite. It is simply because one of the most universal of all objects of spontaneous attention is found in the attitudes and actions toward us of those among whom we live. A certain amount of repression from them may not stifle a vigorous interest. But many a taste which might in a kinder social climate take root and bring forth rich fruit, dies ere it is fairly planted, because of the frosts of social disapprobation.
Interest a Dynamic Phase of Consciousness. -- Interest evidently represents the spontaneous, dynamic side of our psychical make-up. The self is in a very true sense reflected in one's interests. It would be truer to say that a person's emotional reactions disclose his interests than to say, as is occasionally done, that his emotions call forth interest. Furthermore, in the light of our preceding analysis, it seems clear that the interest which we are said to feel in strange things finds its basis in the expansion of our selves. Not the absolutely strange thing do we find interesting, but the thing familiar enough to be vitally connected with our past experience and still novel enough to be felt as a definite en-
(368)-largement of this experience. As we saw long since, all such expansive states of consciousness are, other things equal, intrinsically agreeable, and they afford a definite appeal to the accommodatory function of attention. The interest of the customary, the habitual, has a precisely similar basis. It is only as we find ourselves and feel the experience as a real expression of ourselves that routine is interesting. Whatever is purely mechanical in it is simply disregarded in consciousness.
The artist is the man above all others to whom routine is utterly delightful, not because it is easy, not because it fosters the caprices of his indolence, but because it calls into action the very heart of the man himself. Moreover, let it not be overlooked that the artisan or the professional man who thus delights in his work for its own sake is in so far an artistthe carpenter, the engineer, the lawyer, and the teacher. Each is making, or doing, that which gives overt expression to his own inner nature. So far as routine is disagreeable, apart from sheer physical fatigue, it is because it does not call out an expression of the real self, nor of its keener interests. It is executed in spite of those interests, and against their violent and increasing protest. Let it be understood that we are not here discussing the ethics of routine, the righteousness nor unrighteousness of our feelings, either of satisfaction or disgust. We are simply pointing out the conditions under which routine is interesting or otherwise, and showing their connection with the sources of interest in the strange and the novel.
Moral Decisions. -- To many persons moral decisions which are made with great effort and under the influence of active conscience appear to be the most genuine expressions of the will, the most typical instances of volition. Such experiences are felt to reveal more intimately and deeply than any others the real nature of our personal character and power. The man of strong will is thus the man who can wrestle suc-
(369) -cessfully with temptation, feeling to the uttermost the poignancy of his desire, but still opposing to it the irresistible force of his ideal. It behooves us, in view of this widespread feeling about the significance of decision with effort, to consider the important facts in the case. Are we, indeed, in these decisions made conscious of some inner and -unique constituent of the mind which on other occasions is wanting, or at all events lurks so surreptitiously in the background as to defy detection?
Volition and Effort. -- Broadly speaking, there are three main forms of voluntary processes involving the consciousness of effort. We neglect for the present, at least, the case of mere physical effort, such as is involved in lifting a heavy weight. We are conscious of effort when we attempt to keep our attention upon some tedious and uninteresting subject. We are also conscious of effort when we must make some momentous decision, where a correct choice evidently involves a large number of complex considerations which we are not certain we have properly in mind, or when we are in doubt as to our possession of the precise facts. Such cases need not implicate our own personal desires on either side. Complicated financial problems often illustrate such situations. In both these cases, however, the feeling of effort does not attach primarily to the fact of choosing among the alternatives. It is a feeling of strain and tension which we refer to the whole intellectual process. It partakes more nearly of fatigue than of any other single namable experience of a familiar kind. The third type of case is represented by the moral crisis in which we find ourselves beset by some immoral but alluring project that thrills every fibre in our being with passionate desire. To this tempest of evil inclination there is opposed only the pale, uninteresting sense of duty; and yet, little by little, conscience makes itself felt, and when the moment for decision comes we gather ourselves together and, throwing the whole power of our will into the
(370) struggle, we throttle our passion and save unsullied our fidelity to the right. Experiences of this kind have time out of mind been the mainstay of defenders of the freedom of the will. Here, they say, is an obvious and undeniable case where the will comes in to bring about action in the line of the greatest resistance, instead of in the line of least resistance, as the mechanical philosophers insist must always occur. We must decline to enter upon the question of the freedom of the will, which metaphysics has preempted, but an analysis of the psychology of effort we may profitably undertake.
Analysis of Effort. -- Two antagonistic theories have been maintained about the feeling of effort in such a case as that of our last illustration. Certain psychologists have held that under such circumstances we are immediately and unmistakably aware of our own will. Others insist that accurate introspection discloses to us nothing peculiar to experiences of this character beyond the consciousness of many sensations of muscular strain which originate from the tense condition of the voluntary muscles, especially those connected with respiration. We must distinguish very sharply, in dealing with this disagreement, between the fact of volitional activity and its mental representative which informs us directly of this activity. Undoubtedly crises of the kind mentioned do involve volitional activities of the most basal character. Undoubtedly, too, they do reflect in the most exact manner the real moral nature. But it does not follow from this that we are conscious of a conative element in consciousness akin, as an element, to sensation. The issue here is one of introspective accuracy, and on the whole the evidence seems to favour the second of the two theories we have mentioned. Our consciousness of effort is a consciousness of the emotional kind, in which a very large group of sensations of muscular tension is present. Commonly, too, the affective tone of the experience is distinctly unpleasant.
Consciousness of Mental and Moral Effort an Emotional Experience. -- If we call to mind what reactions we customarily exhibit under circumstances of the kind suggested by our illustrations, we find that our breathing is checked and spasmodic, our faces set, our brows contracted, our hands clenched etc. All the muscular attitudes contribute their sensory increments to the total consciousness of the moment, and observation certainly shows that our sense of the effort involved in a moral decision runs essentially parallel with the intensity of these motor reactions. When the muscles are quiescent we have no keen sense of effort; when the feeling of effort is strong the muscular tensions are always in evidence. We have asserted that the consciousness of effort; so far as it belongs to ethical decisions, appears when desires are opposed to ideals. We shall discuss the nature of desire in a moment, and we shall then discover confirmatory facts tending to bear out our contention that ordinarily the feeling of mental effort (disregarding the consciousness of fatigue) is itself essentially emotional. Its general nature can, therefore, be identified with that of the other emotions which we have already discussed. It is a phenomenon connected with the mutual inhibition of competing motor tendencies. Until the moment of decision has arrived these impulses are dammed up in the organism itself, and we meet the consequences in the form of tense motor contractions. When the choice has been made the inhibitions fade away and coordinated movements expressive of the decision are promptly executed. It has already been suggested that ultimately the utility of these muscular rigidities is to be found in the added stimulation which they furnish us, augmenting thus the weakening momentum of our onward moving selective activities. Their function would thus be found, like that of the accommodatory movements in attention, in their contribution to the amount of conscious activity available.
After all, it must not be forgotten that however much our
(372) consciousness of effort may depend upon certain sensations of strain and tension, the psychical import of the feeling is essentially that which the most spiritualistic psychologists have assumed. Effort means conflict within the self, within consciousness; it means lack of harmony among our ideals and interests and aims; it indicates imperfect systematisation and coordination among the mental processes themselves. The act by which the dominant system of interests and ideas manifests its sovereignty and executes its behests is the "fiat" of our last chapter. All this is perfectly compatible with our finding it distinguished by certain peripheral sensory conditions by means of which we come subjectively to know of it.
Volition and Impulse.--Although we readily recognise and admit that the volitional processes in childhood are, in their origin, dependent upon impulses, it is not so obvious that adult conduct is in the same manner bound up with impulse. Nevertheless, this is the fact, as we shall now see. Indeed, the statement is often made that the development of volition is neither more nor less than a process of reducing our impulses to order, and that a mature character is simply one in which the impulses are thus subordinated to some systematised principles. Instead, therefore, of the conception that a developed will or character is one in which all primitive impulses have been extirpated or repressed, we have the conception of these impulses as continuously operative, but operative in a rational and coherent way, rather than in the chaotic fashion characterising childhood and infancy. This view is unquestionably correct in its general implications, and an examination of the nature of desire will assist to exhibit the fact.
Volition, Desire, and Aversion.-Large portions of our daily acts occur with a minimum of conscious supervision and volition. This fact we have had repeated occasion to emphasise, and we have found its explanation in the estab
(373) -lishment of complicated habits reflecting our customary routine. There is, however, a highly important residuum of acts in which our wills are most vividly enlisted. This group of acts appears whenever we step outside the beaten path of habit, or when habits are threatened with violation. The clerk who is tempted to cut his work in order to see a ball-game, the young man who is considering an advantageous offer to change his occupation, the school-boy whose attention to his books is diverted by the alluring cries of his truant comrades, these afford illustrations of the workings of desire. Now, if we pass in review the various things which we seriously wish for ourselves, we shall find that the vividness of the desire is proportional to the extent to which some one or more of our rudimentary impulses and emotions are enlisted. Objects which do not appeal to any of these primary instinctive reactions do not call forth intense desire. At most, we sporadically " wish " for such things. But the wishing is of a relatively cold-blooded, incidental kind, utterly distinct from the hot, passionate, craving which we feel for objects of the first class. Moreover, along with desire, which is the positive aspect of the phenomenon, must be mentioned aversion, which is like desire in its emotional character, but which discloses to us the negative phase of the process.
The experiences in which we are conscious of the definite yearning of desire, or the positive distaste of aversion, are, therefore, those which directly or indirectly call into activity such impulses as play, love, sympathy, grief, ambition, vanity, pride, jealousy, envy, fear, and hate. Without these or their congeners to colour the occasion we rarely meet with anything which we could justly call either desire or aversion. It hardly needs to be pointed out that in many cases desire and aversion involve several such emotional factors. Pride and love may be thus conjoined, sympathy and grief, fear and envy.
Although the term desire is generally applied to the more
(374) intellectualised forms of craving, we must add to the list the so-called appetites. Bain has classified these as the ap. petites of hunger, thirst, sex, sleep, repose, and exercise. They are all immediately concerned with recurrent organic conditions, but they may readily be developed in such connections as to take on a relatively ideal character. Whether or no they come to occupy a place coordinate with the other forms of desire depends upon the degree to which they chance to secure such an integral connection with our general intellectual life and character.
Desire.-- In its most overt and definite manifestations desire appears, therefore, to be a form of consciousness in which the blind, impulsive character of a pure instinct is modified by a knowledge of the object which will satisfy the impulse. There is on this account, however, little or no lessening of the restless disposition or craving to express the impulse. Desire accordingly gains its power and vivacity from its impulsive nature; it gains its rationality from experience. After our emotions and instincts have been once expressed, we know in the future what to expect of them. Desire is the conscious condition which represents this knowledge of what an emotional impulse means. It is the craving unrest for the object which we know will give us pleasurable satisfaction. To be sure we desire some things which we know will cause us pain, but in such cases it may be fairly questioned whether there is not always, save in occasional pathological cases of the insane type, more or less reference to some secondary or ulterior gratification. The tired mother insists on watching by the bedside of her sick child, even when others are ready to take her place and spare her the exhausting ordeal.
Aversion.-- Aversion, on the other hand, is the precisely polar condition in which again we realise the significance of the object which is mentally present to us, and recognise, on the basis of our experience, that the realisation of it will be
(375) disagreeable. We consequently draw back from it and strive to shun it. Paradoxical as it may seem, both desire and aversion are apt to be dominantly unpleasant; desire, because of the temporary thwarting of inclination and impulse; aversion, either because of the dread of permanent thwarting of some one or more cherished and agreeable experiences, or because of some positive menace of pain. To be sure, there is often a certain exquisite delight in this discomfort of desire, as the poets have repeatedly recognised.
Basal Nature of Desire in Formation of Character. -- It should be evident from the foregoing discussion that desire occupies an extremely fundamental position in the development of will and the formation of character. In the first place, the actual psychical condition presented by desire affords us a striking instance of the great salient features of the mind with which all our previous study has been concerned. In it we find elaborate thought processes at work; we find conspicuous affective factors and we see the whole onward moving conative character of consciousness brought clearly to light. Moreover, it discloses to us an epitome of the character at any given moment. What one really desires is the best possible index of the sort of character one really possesses.