An Introduction to Social Psychology

Chapter 9: Volition

William McDougall

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WE have now sketched the way in which an individual may acquire an ideal of conduct and the way in which his primary instinctive dispositions, becoming organised within the complex moral sentiments, may impel him to strive to realise such an ideal. We have seen that both of these achievements, the acquisition of the ideal and of the sentiment for the ideal, are rendered possible only by the absorption of the more refined parts of the moral tradition, under the influence of some of the personalities in whom it is most strongly embodied. These persons, we said, exert this influence upon us in virtue principally of the admiration that they evoke in us. This admiration, which renders us receptive to their opinions and examples, and responsive to their emotions, may be, of course, and often is, blended with fear, yielding the tertiary compound emotion which we call awe; and this may be further complicated by an infusion of tender emotion, which renders the complex emotion one of reverence ; when the influence of the persons who ex-cite these complex emotions becomes the more powerful in proportion to the additional strength of the complex impulses evoked by them.

It was, I think, in the main because the older moralists neglected to take sufficiently into account the moral tradition and the way in which it becomes impressed upon us, and because they treated of the individual in artificial

( 235) abstraction from the social relations through which his moral sentiments are formed, that they were led to maintain the hypothesis of some special faculty, the con-science, or the moral sense or instinct, or the moral consciousness,[1] in seeking to account for moral conduct.

But, though we may have accounted for the desire to realise an ideal of conduct, we have still to account for the fact that in some men this motive acquires predominance over all others and actually regulates their conduct in almost all relations and situations. For some men ac-quire the ideal and the sentiment, but fail wholly or in part to realise the ideal. We have to recognise that the desire that springs from the completed moral sentiment is usually of a thin and feeble sort in comparison with the fiercer coarser desires that spring directly from our instincts and from our concrete sentiments. It is there-fore no matter for surprise that, in so many cases, the acquirement of an ideal of conduct and of the sentiment

( 236) for it does not suffice to secure its realisation. How, then, are we to account for the fact that the conduct of the good man is in the main regulated according to the promptings of these weaker desires, and against the stronger, more urgent prompting of the more primitive desires? It is this appearance of the overcoming of the stronger by the weaker impulse or motive, in so many cases of right action following upon a conflict of motives and the exercise of moral effort, that leads Professor James to define moral action as "action in the line of the greatest resistance."[2]

It is in these cases of moral conflict that volition or effort of the will in the fullest sense of the word, comes in to determine the victory to the side of the weaker impulse. Professor James puts the matter schematically in this way:—

I (ideal impulse) in itself weaker than P (the native propensity).

I + E (effort of will) stronger than P.

Professor James, like many others, finds here an ultimate and irresolvable problem in face of which we can only say—The will exerts itself on the side of the weaker motive and enables it to triumph over its stronger antagonists, while leaving the word "will" simply as the name for this possibility of an influx of energy that works on the side of the weaker motive, an influx of energy of whose source, causes, or antecedents we can say nothing. That is to say, Professor James, failing to carry the analysis of volition beyond the point of determining what the effects of volition are, adopts the doctrine of indeterminism. I do not propose to go at length into the world-old dispute between libertarians and determinists. But the acceptance of the libertarian doctrine would be in-

( 237) compatible with any hope that a science of society, in any proper sense of the word "science," may be achieved ;for in face of each of the most important problems of such a science, we should have to content ourselves with the admission of impotence.[3]

Some attempt must therefore be made to show that the effort of volition is not the mysterious and utterly in-.comprehensible process the libertarians would have it to be; but that it is to be accounted for by the same principles as other modes of human activity; that it involves no new principles of activity and energy, but only a more subtle and complex interplay of those impulses which actuate all animal behaviour and in which the ultimate mystery of mind and life resides.

The dispute has been conducted upon two different grounds, the moral and the psychological. On the former ground it has been urged, again and again, that if we do not recognise freedom of the will, do not recognise some degree of independence of antecedent conditions in the making of moral choice, we cannot recognise any moral responsibility, and that, therefore, to deny the freedom

( 238) of the will is to undermine all morality and to deprive our systems of rewards and punishments, of praise and blame, of all logical justification. This argument implies a false conception of responsibility and of the proper nature and purpose of rewards and punishments, al-though it has been urged by many persons who might have been expected to avoid this confusion of popular thought.

Responsibility means accountability—to be responsible for a wrong action means to be rightly liable to punishment. If to punish means simply to inflict pain from the motive of resentment or revenge, then it may fairly be said that it is illogical for the determinist to hold any one liable to punishment, i.e., responsible, that he ought rather to say : "Poor fellow, you could not help it; therefore I, recognising that you are merely a piece of mechanism, will not vent my resentment upon you, you are not responsible." But the infliction of pain from the motive of revenge or resentment is entirely a-moral or immoral. Punishment is only justifiable, is only moral punishment, when inflicted as a deterrent from further wrong-doing, and as an influence capable of moulding character. That is to say, men are only morally responsible, or rightly liable to punishment, if the punishment may fairly be expected to deter them from further wrong-doing, or to modify their natures for the better.[4] It is for this reason that, while we rightly punish children and animals, we do not punish madmen. These last are not rightly liable to punishment, they are not held responsible, because it has been found that punishment will not exert on them its normal deterrent

(239) and improving effects.[5] The attitude of the judge, or father, who has to punish, is then: "I punish you in order that you may be deterred from repetition of your bad conduct. I know that you could not help it, but, if you are not punished, you will, on the next occasion of temptation, still be unable to avoid misconduct; where-as, if I now punish you, you will in all probability be deterred; and the punishment may initiate or strengthen in you the habit of control of your impulses, and, by inducing in you a greater regard for authority, it may set the growth of your self-regarding sentiment upon the right lines." In other words, according to the determinist view, if a man is morally punishable, i.e., responsible, it is because his wrong action was the outcome of his own nature, was determined by conditions of which the most important lie in his mental constitution, and be-cause it may reasonably be hoped that punishment may modify his nature for the better.

If the opposed view is true, if a man's voluntary actions are not in the main determined by conditions comprised within the system of his mental constitution, the only ground for punishing him must be the emotion of resentment or revenge. For, if the issues of our moral conflicts are decided, not by the conditions of our own natures, but by some new beginning, some causal factor having no antecedents, or by some mysterious influence coming upon us from an unknown source, a prompting

( 240) from God or devil—or from any other source the libertarian likes to assign it outside our own natures—then clearly we deserve neither praise nor blame, neither re-ward nor punishment ; and it is useless to attempt to modify the issue of such conflicts by modifying our natures by means of these influences.[6] That is to say, if the libertarian doctrine is true, there can be no moral punishment of a wrongdoer, but only vengeful harming of him, and therefore there can be no moral responsibility. The argument from moral responsibility is therefore altogether on the side of the determinist. It is the advocate of freewill who would undermine moral responsibility.

But there is another argument for freewill based on moral needs, which is not to be set aside so easily. If, as the determinist asserts, each of my actions is completely determined by antecedent conditions and processes that are partly within my own nature, partly in my environment, why should I make any moral effort? My conduct will be what it will be, the issue of conditions that existed and determined it in every detail long before I was born; therefore it would be foolish of me to take pains to choose the better course and to make efforts to realise it. This is the real crux of this dispute. This is the legitimate inference from

( 241) determinism. This is its moral difficulty, which has seldom been squarely faced by its advocates, and never overcome by them. To say, as so many of them say, that we are free to act in accordance with our own natures, that the conditions of our actions are within us, and that this is all the freedom that any reasonable man can desire—to say this does not remove, or in any degree lessen, this moral difficulty. Such reflections may, no doubt, be satisfactory enough to those who believe that their own natures are above serious reproach, but not to those who can point to undesirable ancestry and unmistakable flaws in their native dispositions. Nothing is more difficult than to give any helpful answer to one who adopts this line of justification for moral slackness; we can only hold him responsible and punish him. One may suspect that the determinists, most of whom try to put aside this difficulty by some scornful reference to Oriental fatalism, are in general really afraid of it, and have entered into a conspiracy resolutely to ignore, since they cannot dispel, this dark shadow on human life.

But psychology must not allow its investigations and theories to be biased by moral needs; and it must not easily accept, as evidence in favour of freewill, the difficulty of finding in our mental constitution the source of that influx of energy which seems to play the decisive role in volition.[7]

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The psychological problem we have to face is, then, this : Can we give any psychological account of the conditions of the effort of will, which, being thrown on the side of the weaker, more ideal motive, may cause it to prevail over the coarser, more primitive, and stronger motive?

We have recognised that all impulses, all desires and

( 243) aversions, all motives—in short, all conations—fall into two classes: (1)those that arise from the excitement of some innate disposition or instinct; (2) those that arise on the excitement of dispositions acquired during the life of the individual by differentiation from the innate dispositions, under the guidance of pleasure and of pain. We may, then, restate our problem in more general terms, as follows : Is volition only a specially complex case of conation, implying some conjunction of conations of these two origins rendered possible by the systematic organisation of the innate and acquired dispositions? Or does it involve some motive power, some source of energy, some power of striving, of an altogether different order? Clearly we must attempt to account for it in terms of the former alternative, and we may only adopt the latter if the attempt gives no promise of success. It may fairly be claimed, I think, that we can vaguely understand the way in which all volition may be accounted for as a special case of conation, differing from other conations, not in kind, but only in complexity. We may see this most clearly if we form a scale of conations ranging from the simplest type to the most complex and obscure type, namely, moral choice achieved by an effort which, in the struggle of higher and lower motives, brings victory to the side of the higher but weaker motive. If types of conation can be arranged in such a scale, each type differing from its neighbours only very slightly, that will afford a strong presumption of continuity of the scale; for if volition involves some peculiar factor, not operative in other conations, we ought to be able to draw a sharp line between the volitional and the non-volitional conations. That such a scale can be made is, I think, indisputable ;

( 244) and an attempt to illustrate it will be made on a later page.

But, though we cannot draw any sharp line between volitions and conations of other types, it is convenient and justifiable to reserve the name "volition," or act of will, for a particular class of conations, and we must first try to determine what are the marks of the conations of this class.

Some authors do not recognise this distinction, but describe all conations, every form of mental activity, as issuing from the will. For Schopenhauer, for example, the blind appetitions displayed by lowly organisms were acts of will, equally with our greatest moral efforts; for Professor Bain there was no such distinction, because he regarded all activities as alike prompted simply by pleasure or pain, as efforts to secure pleasure or to escape from pain. And it was for many years a common practice to class all bodily movements as either unconscious reflex actions or voluntary actions. But of late years in-crease of insight into the simpler modes of action and the better comprehension of the large part they play in our lives, have led to the general recognition of the propriety of the distinction of volitional and non-volitional conations. Herbert Spencer and others, confining their attention to the conations expressed in bodily movements, have regarded as volitional all movements that are immediately preceded by the idea of the movement.[8] But this precedence of the idea of movement is merely the mark of ideo-motor action, and many such movements take place in an automatic or machine-like fashion that is very different from unmistakable volition.


Others adopt as the criterion of volitional action its antecedence by the idea or representation of the end to be achieved by it. But this is common to all action prompted by desire, to all conation that is not mere blind appetition. And a man may struggle against the prompting of a desire whose end is clearly represented. We commonly and properly say in such cases that the man's will, or the man himself, struggles against the desire and masters it, or is mastered by it. Clearly, then, volition is something other, and more, than simple desire, and more than desire issuing in action. Nor can we be content to regard as volitional every action issuing from a conflict of desires; for such conflicts take place on a plane of mental development lower than that at which volition proper becomes possible.

Professor Stout,[9] criticising Mr. Shand's conclusion that a volition is a unique differentiation of conation, a special form of conation that is incapable of being analysed or described,[10] puts the problem in this way : "How does a volition differ from a desire?" And the answer he proposes is that a "volition is a desire qualified and defined by the judgment that, so far as in us lies, we shall bring about the attainment of the desired end." That volition involves such a judgment is true, I think, of the special class of volitions we call resolutions, but not of all volitions; and, even if it were true of all, it certainly would not adequately describe the difference between desire and volition. We have seen that in the typical case of volition, that of hard moral choice, the effort of will somehow supports or re-enforces the weaker motive, and enables it to get the better of the stronger motive. Now, a mere judgment has no

(246) such motive power; rather, the judgment, "I shall do this and not that" is merely the mode in which the accomplished volition is explicitly expressed when the circumstances demanding the one, or the other, mode of action lie still in the future ; the judgment is an effect of, rather than the essence of, the volitional process.

The essential mark of volition—that which distinguishes it from simple desire, or simple conflict of desires—is that the personality as a whole, or the central feature or nucleus of the personality, the man himself, or all that which is regarded by himself and others as the most essential part of himself, is thrown upon the side of the weaker motive ; whereas a mere desire may be felt to be something that, in comparison with this most intimate nucleus of the personality, is foreign to the self, a force that we do not acknowledge as our own, and which we, or the intimate self, may look upon with horror and detestation.

Before following up this clue and attempting to trace the source of this energy with which the idea of the self seems to support one of the conflicting motives, we must ask, What is the immediate effect of volition? According to a widely accepted view we can only will a movement of some part of the body. This view is explicitly maintained by Bain, and has received the endorsement of Professor Stout. Yet it is, I think, quite indefensible. We may, and often do, effectively will the continuance of a sensation or an idea in consciousness; by an effort of will one can maintain at the focus of consciousness a presentation or idea, which, but for the volition, would be driven out of the focus by other ideas or sense-impressions. Those who accept the view that we can will only a movement, or a motor adjustment of some kind, usually try to explain away these cases of

(247) voluntary direction of attention to sense-impressions or objects of any kind, by saying that in these cases the immediate effect of volition is merely some appropriate muscular adjustment of a sense-organ, which adjustment aids indirectly in maintaining the idea or sense-impression at the focus of consciousness. Thus Dr. Stout writes: "The volition to attend is strictly analogous to the volition to move the arm, or perform any other bodily action. It follows from this that our voluntary command of attention must depend on our voluntary command of the motor processes of fixation."[11] But, though the statement of the former of these two sentences is unimpeachable, the conclusion drawn in the second has no logical connection with it. It would seem that this doctrine owes its prevalence to the fact that the sequence of movement upon volition to move is an immediately observable and undeniable fact, one so familiar that we are apt to overlook the inexplicable and mysterious nature of the sequence, and to accept it as a matter of course; just as most of us accept as a matter of course the equally mysterious, inexplicable, and familiar sequence of sensation upon stimulation of a sense-organ.

There are two sufficient grounds for rejecting this doctrine. First, desire notoriously tends to maintain the idea of its object or end at the focus of consciousness; our thought keeps flying back to dwell on that which we strongly desire, in spite of our best efforts to banish the idea of it from our minds.

This power of desire to maintain the desired object at the focus of consciousness, to keep our attention directed to such an object, is, like the persistent bodily striving that characterises all conation and marks of such

( 248) action most clearly from mechanical process, the immediate expression of psychical work, and involves, as was said above, the central mystery of life and mind and of their relation to matter. No one contends that desire maintains the presentation of its end indirectly only by way of motor adjustments; such maintenance is rather an essential and immediate effect of every impulse that rises above the level of blind appetition and becomes conscious of its end. Why, then, should we deny to volition, which is desire and more than desire, a power that desire unmistakably possesses? Secondly, that volitional effort can directly maintain a presentation at the focus of consciousness may easily be shown by appropriate experiment.[12]

We must, then, reverse the position; instead of saying that volitional direction of attention is an indirect effect of volitional innervation of some muscular apparatus, we must recognise that volitional innervation of muscles is but a special case of volition, and that the essential and immediate effect of all volition is the maintenance of a presentation at the focus of consciousness. For, when we will a movement, we do but re-enforce the idea of that movement so that it tends more strongly to issue in movement. We may therefore follow Professor James when he asserts that "the essential achievement of the will is to attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind," and, again, that "effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will." In the special case in

(249) which the object to which we direct our attention by a volitional effort is a bodily movement, the movement follows immediately upon the idea in virtue of that mysterious connection between them of which we know almost nothing beyond the fact that it obtains.

Effort of attention is, then, the essential form of all volition. And this formulation of the volitional process, the holding of an idea at the focus of consciousness by an effort of attention, covers every instance of volition. Let us consider a few of the principal types of volitional effect. In deliberation we have the ideas of two different lines of action rising alternately to the focus of consciousness, either one being checked or inhibited by the other before it can determine action; in the act of volitional choice we give permanence and dominance to the one idea, and in so doing we exclude the other more or less completely from consciousness. Again, in making a resolution to follow a certain line of conduct, we form as clear an idea as possible of that line of conduct, and we hold the idea steadily before the mind by an effort of attention. It is true that we may formulate our resolution in the form of a judgment—I am going to do this; but that is something additional, not an essential part of the volitional process. Once more, in volitional recollection of some fact we have forgotten, e.g., the name of a man of whom we are thinking, our volition merely holds the idea of this man before consciousness, so that it has the opportunity to develop its various aspects, its associative setting, the place and time and company in which we have seen the man; all of which, of course, increases the chance that his name will be reproduced or recollected.

We have now to go on to the more serious part of the problem of volition, and to ask, Can we give any

( 250) account of the process that results in this holding of a presentation at the focus of consciousness to the exclusion of rival presentations? The thorough-going libertarian should reply: "No, this act of will, this holding of the attention, is not conditioned by the mind or character, it has no antecedents in the mental processes of the subject who is said to will, therefore we may not hope to give any psychological account of its antecedents or conditions, if it has any." Professor James does not go quite so far as this; having correctly defined the essential effect of volition, he claims to be able to trace one step backwards the process of which it is the issue. He tells us that the holding fast of the one idea at the focus of consciousness is effected by suppressing or inhibiting all rival ideas that tend to exclude it; the favoured idea then persists in virtue of its own energy and works its appropriate effects, whether in the production of bodily movement or in the determination of the further course of mental process.

Professor Wundt teaches a very similar doctrine. For him volition is one aspect of apperception, and apperception is essentially the inhibition of all presentations save the one that rises to the focus of consciousness. According to these two great authorities, then, volition is essentially a negative function, an inhibiting of irrelevant presentations. But neither of them explains how the inhibition is effected, whence comes the inhibiting force, or what are the conditions of its operation. Presumably, according to Professor James, this is where every attempt to trace the volitional process from its effects backwards comes against a dead wall of mystery, be-cause the inhibiting stroke issues from some region in-accessible to our intellects, or simply happens without antecedents.


But this doctrine of the primarily inhibitive character of the volitional process is, I think, a false scent; and it is not to be expected that we can successfully trace back the process, if we make this false start. What gives it a certain plausibility is the fact that volitional attention, like all attention, involves inhibition of all presentations other than the one held at the focus of consciousness ; but this inhibition is a secondary or collateral result of the essential process, which is primarily a re-enforcement of the one idea, the idea of the end that we will. Throughout the nervous system, with the exception possibly of those most primitive parts directly concerned in the control of the visceral organs, inhibition always has this character, appears always as the negative aspect, or complementary result, of a positive process of innervation. There is no good evidence of inhibiting impulses sent out to the muscles of the voluntary system; and we control involuntary tendencies either by innervating antagonistic muscles, or by directing our attention elsewhere by an effort of will; that is to say, by concentrating the energy of the mind and nervous system in one direction we withdraw it from, or prevent its flowing in, any other direction. We may see this most clearly when we attempt to exert volitional control over the deep-seated sensation-reflexes, such as the tendency to sneeze or the tendency to flinch under a sudden pain or threat. Most of us learn to suppress a sneeze by volitionally accentuating the energy of the respiratory movements—we make regular, rapid and forced inspirations and expirations ; and in order to avoid flinching or winking we strongly innervate some group of muscles, perhaps almost the whole muscular system, but most habitually and most strongly the muscles of the jaw, brow,

( 252) and hands. And all the other instances of inhibitions that play so large a part in our mental and nervous life appear to be of this type, the supplementary or negative aspects of positive excitations.[13] We must not, then, reverse the order, as Wundt and James do, in the case of volition and make inhibition the primary and essential aspect of the process. We must conclude that volition essentially involves a positive increase of the energy with which an idea maintains itself in consciousness and plays its part in determining bodily and mental processes.

So we come back from our brief discussion of the views of other writers to the position that in the typical case of volition, when in the conflict of two motives the will is thrown on the side of one of them and we make a volitional decision, we in some way add to the energy with which the idea of the one desired end maintains itself in opposition to its rival.

This conclusion constitutes an important step towards the answer to the question with which we set out—Is volition merely a specially complex conjunction of the conative tendencies of the two kinds that we have recognised from the outset? For it shows us that the essential operation of volition is the same as that of desire, namely, the holding the idea of the end at the focus of consciousness so that it works strongly towards the realisation of its end, prevailing over rival ideas and tendencies.

We are now in a position to follow up the clue that

( 253) we left on one side some little way back. We recognised that in the typical case of volition a man's self, in some peculiarly intimate sense of the word "self," is thrown upon the side of the motive that is made to prevail.

That the empirical self, the idea of his self that each man entertains, plays an essential part in volition has been widely recognised. The recognition seems to be implied by the obscure dictum, approved by Mr. Bradley and several other writers, that in volition we identify the self with the end of the action. It was expressed by Dr. Stout when he wrote that the judgment, "I am going to do this," is the essential feature of volition by which it is distinguished from desire; and it is more clearly expressed in his latest volume,[14] where he writes, "What is distinctive of voluntary decision is the intervention of self-consciousness as a co-operating factor." But he does not, I think, make quite clear how self-consciousness plays this role.[15]

No mere idea has a motive power that can for a moment withstand the force of strong desire, except only the pathologically fixed ideas of action, and the quasi-pathological ideas of action introduced to the mind by

( 254) hypnotic suggestion.[16] And the idea of the self is no exception to this rule. The idea of the self, or self-consciousness, is able to play its great role in volition only in virtue of the self-regarding sentiment, the system of emotional and conative dispositions that is organised about the idea of the self and is always brought into play to some extent when the idea of the self rises to the focus of consciousness. The conations, the desires and aversions, arising within this self-regarding sentiment are the motive forces which, adding themselves to the weaker ideal motive in the case of moral effort, enable it to win the mastery over some stronger, coarser desire of our primitive animal nature and to banish from consciousness the idea of the end of this desire.

In the absence of a strong self-regarding sentiment, the idea of the self, no matter how rich and how accurate its content, can play but a feeble part in the regulation of conduct,. and can exert little or no influence in moral choice. We may see this clearly if we imagine the case of a man who combines full and accurate self-knowledge with almost complete lack of self-respect and pride. The case is hardly realised, because, as we have seen, advance in self-knowledge depends upon the existence of the self-regarding sentiment. But it is approximately realised by men who, having attained self-knowledge, afterwards, through a series of moral misfortunes, lose their self-respect more or less completely. In such a man accurate self-knowledge would simply enable him

( 255) to foresee more accurately than others what things would bring him the greatest satisfactions and pains, and to foretell his own conduct under given conditions. He might become a very paragon of prudence, but hardly of virtue. Such a man might have acquired and might retain admirable moral sentiments ; he might even have formed an ideal of conduct and character, and might entertain for this ideal a sentiment that led him to desire its realisation both for himself and others. But, if he had lost his self-respect, if his self-regarding sentiment had decayed, his conduct might be that of a villain in spite of his accurate self-knowledge and his moral sentiments. On each occasion on which a desire, springing from a moral sentiment, came into conflict with one of the coarser and stronger desires, it would be worsted; for there would be no support for it forthcoming from the sentiment of self-respect. Something like this is, I take it, the condition of the man who becomes an habitual drunkard after acquiring admirable moral sentiments. He may still desire the realisation of all that is good and moral, and may have a lofty ideal of conduct; but, if he has become known to all the world as a sot and has become aware of the fact, he can no longer find in his self-regarding sentiment a support for his better, more ideal, motives. Whereas, so long as his drinking is secret and is preceded on each occasion by a struggle in which his self-respect takes part with his moral sentiments against the desire for drink, there is still room for hope that he may reform his habits.

We may, then, define volition as the supporting or re-enforcing of a desire or conation by the co-operation of an impulse excited within the system of the self-regarding sentiment.

Since, as we have seen, the growth of the self-regard-

( 256) -ing sentiment is a gradual process, there can be no sharp line drawn between complex conations that are volitional and those that are not. Between, on the one hand, the simple desire conscious of its end but not complicated by self-consciousness, and, on the other hand, the moral effort that gives the victory to the ideal motive—which is volition in the fullest sense—there is a large range of complex conations in which the self-regarding emotions and conations play parts of all degrees of importance and refinement. It is instructive and important for our purpose to devise cases illustrating the principal stages in the transition from simple conflict of impulses to volition in the fullest sense.

Let us take, as illustrating the stages in this scale:

I. The case of a child who desires food that is in a dark room and who is impelled in opposite directions by this desire and by his fear of the dark place. If either impulse overcomes the other and action follows, that is not a case of volition.

2. Suppose that the child has been punished on some previous occasion because his fear has overcome him, and suppose that the memory of this punishment and his aversion to it enabled his desire for food to overcome his fear. Is that a case of volition? In the simplest conceivable case of behaviour of this sort, such as might be exhibited by a young child or a dog, I should say no.

3. But, if the child has attained some degree of self-consciousness and says, "I don't want to be punished, so I will go and get it," we might perhaps call this volition of the lowest grade.

4. As illustrations of stages successively higher in the scale, suppose the child to say, "I must go and get it, for mother will scold me if I don't"; or again:—

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5. "I will do it because, if I don't, the other boys will call me a coward."

6. Or let him say, "I will do it, for one ought to be able to put aside this absurd fear, and I should be ashamed if any one knew that I was afraid of going in there."

In all these cases, except the first, the influence of the social environment is clearly the factor that leads to the mastery of the one impulse by the other. And the last two cases, which clearly imply the existence of the sentiment of self-respect and the co-operation of an impulse awakened within it would generally be admitted to be cases of volition.

7 But now consider a case in which, although social disapproval is ranged on the side of the restraining impulse, the effort of will, being thrown on the side of the motive for action, enables it to overcome the restraining impulse. Suppose that our imaginary agent is a man of great attainments whose life and work are publicly recognised as of great value to the community; and sup-pose that he suddenly finds himself before a burning house in which a child remains in imminent danger. To save the child seems impossible, and, though the man's protective impulse strongly prompts him to make the at-tempt, he is restrained by a very real fear. We may sup-pose that the impulse of fear is more than strong enough to overcome the rival impulse, if these two were left to fight it out alone ; and we may suppose that the influence of his friends and of society in general is thrown upon the side of his fear—his companion tells him that it would be wicked to sacrifice his valuable life in this hope-less attempt, and he knows that this will be the general opinion of his fellows and that he will be regarded by many as a vainglorious fool. Nevertheless, our hero

(258) feels that to make 'the attempt is the higher line of con-duct, he deliberates a few moments and then, choosing to act, throws himself into the forlorn hope with all his energy. Here is a case of undeniable volition, of hard choice, and of action in the line of greatest resistance. The appeal of social approval and disapproval to the self-regarding sentiment seems to be all against the decision actually taken, yet the will seems to triumph over that as well as over the restraining impulse of fear.

Is it, then, impossible to bring this case under our definition of volition? Must we fall back on indeterminism and say: Here was an action that was performed by sheer volition against all the motives arising from the man's mental constitution; all the factors of which we can give any psychological account were against action, yet the will triumphed over them? I do not think we need draw this conclusion ; for the principles of explanation we have hitherto relied upon will not fail us altogether in this case.

We may imagine two rather different ways in which such volition can be accounted for.

1. The man may be moved to his decision by the belief that his conduct would be approved by persons whose approval he values more highly, whose approval appeals more strongly to his self-regarding sentiment, than the approval of all his friends and contemporaries. He may think of such men as Chinese Gordon and others for whom he may have a profound admiration or reverence ; or he may believe in a purely ideal personality ; and, though he may believe that these persons will never know of his action, yet his assurance that, if they knew, they would approve, awakens a motive within his self-regarding sentiment that overrides all others and determines his hard choice; just as on a lower plane, in

(259) the type of volition illustrated by our sixth case, one says, "I will overcome this fear, for what would my companions say if they knew I was afraid."

2. On the other hand, our hero may decide from principle. He may long ago have decided after reflection that courageous self-sacrifice for the good of others is a principle superior to all other considerations. Whether his opinion is right may be for others a fair matter of dispute, but not for him; he has made up his mind after mature and cool deliberation ; and now a case arises calling for the application of his principle, and he acts in accordance with it and against what might seem overwhelmingly strong motives. Such action is the type of resolution, of resolute adherence to decisions once formed; and it is the highest type of resolute action, be-cause in this case the decision was not formed in face of the special circumstances calling for its application, but was of a general nature.

How, then, does the possession of this principle supply the motive power that overcomes the other strong motives? The bare verbal formula, "I will always prefer self-sacrifice to self-seeking," has no motive power, or but a minimum. In the first place, this preference for self-sacrifice is a moral sentiment acquired in the main by selective absorption from the higher moral tradition in the way we noticed in the preceding chapter ; and this moral sentiment has been incorporated in the sentiment for the ideal of conduct that our hero has-set up for him-self. His self-regarding sentiment demands that he shall live up to this ideal; he feels shame when he does not, elation and satisfaction when he does; that is to say, the impulse of self-assertion organised within his sentiment of self-respect gives rise to a strong desire to realise his ideal under all circumstances.

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But, in order that his adopted principle may power-fully affect his conduct, something more is needed. He must have a strong sentiment for self-control. Of all the abstract moral sentiments, this is the master sentiment for volition and especially for resolution. It is a special development of the self-regarding sentiment. For the man in whom this sentiment has become strong the de-sire of realising his ideal of self-control is a master-motive that enables him to apply his adopted principles of action, the results of his deliberate decisions, in spite of the opposition of all other motives. The operation of this sentiment, more than anything else, gives a man the appearance of independence of the appeal of the voice of society, and of all other persons, to his self-regarding sentiment. It enables him to substitute himself, as it were, for his social environment.

These two interpretations of this particular case seem to me to illustrate the two principal types of higher volition natural to men of different dispositions. The former case, in which the determining motive is the desire of the approval of the ideal spectator, illustrates, perhaps, the more usual source of the moral volition of the man in whom active sympathy is strongly developed. In principle it presents no difficulty, if we have sufficiently ac-counted for the influence of approval and disapproval in general. It implies merely a greater refinement of discrimination between those whose approval we value or are indifferent to than is exercised by the average man.

The other type is characteristic of the less social, less sympathetic, man. In this case it is less easy to trace the energy of volition back to the self-regarding sentiment. For we found that this sentiment has for its object, not the self merely, but the self in its relations to others, the emotional and conative dispositions of the

(261) sentiment being excited by the regards and attitudes of others towards the self. And it is now suggested that a man may achieve a hard moral choice in opposition to social approval or disapproval by substituting himself, more or less completely, for his fellow-men as the spectator whose regards evoke the impulses of his self-regarding sentiment and in whose approval they find their satisfaction. It is doubtful whether this substitution is ever completely achieved; for, as we have seen, the idea of the self, the consciousness of self, is in its very origin and essential nature a consciousness of the self in its social relations; and probably some vague social reference always persists. But, in any case, it is clear, I think, that this kind of volition, which seems almost to render a man independent of his social environment, can only be attained to by the development of the self-regarding sentiment under social influences. Most of us make some progress towards this substitution. At first our self-regarding sentiment is sensitive to the regards of every one and of all social circles ; and then, as we find that different persons and circles regard the same con-duct and our same self very differently, we learn to set these off against one another more or less, we learn to despise the opinions and regards of the mass of men and to gain confidence in our own personal and moral judgments; thus our own estimate of ourselves, which in early life is apt to fluctuate with every passing regard of our fellows, becomes stable and relatively independent.

Most of us, perhaps, may be said to achieve a stage in this process at which our self-regarding sentiment aid emotions have for their object the self in relation to the select group of persons who are of similar ways of thinking with ourselves, those who share our moral sentiments and from whom we have in the main absorbed

( 262) them; and, when we make a moral effort, it is with some more or less vague reference to this select circle. All this applies to the self, not only in its strictly moral aspects, but in all others also; and one of the great ad-vantages of being fully grown up is that we cease to suffer so acutely and so frequently the elations and the humiliations which in early life we are so liable to experience in face of every attitude of approval or disapproval, whether expressed or merely implied.

There are two doctrines from which we must care-fully distinguish this of the self-approbative impulse :

I. There is Adam Smith's fiction of the well-informed and impartial spectator, the man within the breast, whose approval we seek; this may be regarded as a first approximation to the truth.

2. There is the hedonistic doctrine, which we rejected in an earlier chapter, to the effect that in making a moral effort we are always seeking the pleasure of self-satisfaction or seeking to avoid the pain of remorse. The kind of volition we are considering may, and, I think, usually does, involve no anticipation of these pleasures and pains. The pleasure or pain may result, but the de-sire of, or aversion from, it is not necessarily or commonly an important part of the motive; what we desire, or are averse from, is not the pleasure of approval or the pain of disapproval, but the approval or disapproval themselves ; and, whether the approval is our own or an-other's, the source of the additional motive power, which in the moral effort of volition is thrown upon the side of the weaker, more ideal impulse, is ultimately to be found in that instinct of self-display or self-assertion whose affective aspect is the emotion of positive self-feeling. That this is true we may see clearly in such a simple case of volition as that of a boy overcoming by effort of the

( 263) will, owing to the presence of spectators, an impulse of fear that restrains him from some desired object. He makes his effort and overcomes his fear-impulse, be-cause, as we say, he knows his companions are looking at him; the impulse of self-display is evoked on the side of the weaker motive. And the same is true of those more refined efforts of the will in which the operation of this impulse is so deeply obscured that it has not hitherto been recognised.

Moral advance and the development of volition consist, then, not in the coming into play of factors of a new order, whether called the will or the moral instinct or conscience, but in the development of the self-regarding sentiment and in the improvement or refinement of the "gallery" before which we display ourselves, the social circle that is capable of evoking in us this impulse of self-display ; and this refinement may be continued until the "gallery" becomes an ideal spectator or group of spectators or, in the last resort, one's own critical self standing as the representative of such spectators.

To this statement the objection may be raised that it seems to make what we commonly call a prig of every man who makes any moral effort. It may be said that the ordinarily good man simply does what seems to be right as judged by its social effects, regardless of the figure he cuts in his own or others' eyes ; that that is the only truly moral conduct; and that to care about, and to be moved by the thought of, the figure one will cut is the mark of a prig. But any one who raises this objection and maintains that the outward-looking attitude is the only truly moral one, proves the truth of the position maintained above by his resentment and by his implied admission that the attitude of the agent is of so much importance for the estimation of the moral worth

( 264) of conduct; for he shows that he desires that he him,-self and other good men should be regarded as acting in the outward-looking attitude and not in that inward-looking one which he characterises as priggish. There are two important differences between the truly mural man and the prig. The prig finds in the desire for an admirable and praiseworthy attitude his only, or at least his predominant, motive to right doing; whereas the moral agent desires the right for its own sake in virtue of his moral sentiments, and habitually acts from this motive ; and it is only when a moral conflict arises with the necessity for moral choice and effort, that the self and the self-regarding impulse play the decisive role. Again, the truly moral man has an ideal of conduct so high that he can hardly attain to it, and, realising this, he is moved by the desire not to fall short of it and not to incur the disapproval of his ideal spectators; whereas the prig's ideal is so easily within his reach that he constantly attains it and achieves the pleasure of self-approval—"he puts in his thumb and pulls out a plum, and says—What a good boy am I."

Our study of volition is not complete without some consideration of the relation of will to what is called character. Character has been defined as "that from which the will proceeds"; and will might equally well be defined as "that which proceeds from character." What, then, is character? At the outset we said that character is something built up in the course of life, and that it must therefore be distinguished from disposition and from temperament, which are in the main natively given. There can be no doubt, I think, that the sentiments constitute a large part of what is properly called character. But do they constitute the whole of character? Or is there some other acquired feature of the adult mental

(265) constitution that is an essential feature of character in the strict sense of the word? That there is, beside the sentiments, some such additional feature involved in character, seems to be proved by the existence of per-sons who have many strong sentiments and who yet cannot be said to have strong character. They are the sentimentalists.

One essential condition of strong character seems to be the organisation of the sentiments in some harmonious system or hierarchy. The most usual or readiest way in which such systematisation of the sentiments can be brought about, is the predominance of some one sentiment that in all circumstances is capable of supplying a dominant motive, that directs all conduct towards the realisation of one end to which all other ends are subordinated. The dominant sentiment may be a concrete or an abstract sentiment; it may be the love of money, of home, of country, of justice. When any such sentiment acquires decided predominance over all others, we call it a ruling passion; whenever other motives conflict with the motives arising within the system of a ruling passion, they go to the wall, they are powerless to oppose it.

Take the case of a man whose ruling passion is the love of home, say of a beautiful ancestral home that is dilapidated and encumbered with debts when it first be-comes his own. He sets out to restore its ancient glories, perhaps entering upon the task with reluctance. As time goes on his sentiment gains strength, he acquires the habit of working for this one end, of valuing all things according to the degree in which they contribute towards it. All other motives become not only relatively, but absolutely, weaker for lack of exercise; that is to say, they are never allowed to determine action and so tend to atrophy from disuse. The man loses his other senti-

( 266) -ments, or interests, as we say ; he gives up sport, art, horses, and what not, and may become indifferent to the opinions of his fellow-men, may be content to appear miserly and to commit mean actions in the service of his ruling passion.

Can such a man be said to have acquired a strong character? In contrast with the man whose sentiments are but little systematised, he may seem to have strong character. This other man will be drawn this way and that. If he is of sympathetic nature, he will be liable to be dominated first by one, then by another, sentiment, according to the nature of the social influences that bear upon him, the opinions and sentiments of each social circle he enters. He will make no sustained effort in any direction, except under the spur of necessity. And the man of specifically weak character, or lacking in character, is the man whose sentiments not only have not been organised in any system, but have not been consolidated and confirmed by habitual action in accordance with their prompting, because the man has constantly al-lowed himself to be moved by the entirely unorganised and fleeting impulses evoked sporadically by each situation as it arises. Habitual action on the motives sup-plied by the systematised sentiments is, then, an essential factor in character, over and above the possession of the sentiments.

Does, then, the possession of a master-sentiment or ruling passion of any kind, such as the passion for a home that we considered just now, or one for money or for any other concrete or abstract object, in itself constitute character, when confirmed, as a ruling passion always is, by habitual action from the motives it sup-plies? It does not constitute strong character in the full sense of the words. It seems to give the man a strong

( 267) will in relation to all that affects the object of his master-sentiment ; but he has not strong will and character in the full sense, but rather what might be called specialised character. In relation to all objects and situations that are not in any way connected with his ruling passion, or if the object of it is irrevocably taken from him, such a man may display deplorable weakness or lack of will and character. In fact, he cannot properly be said to have a strong will or to exert volition; his ruling passion supplies him with motives so strong that, in all situations in which its object is concerned, conflict of motives and deliberation can hardly occur and volition is not needed; while in all other situations he is incapable of volition.

There is only one sentiment which by becoming the master-sentiment can generate strong character in the fullest sense, and that is the self-regarding sentiment. There is a lower imperfect form of the sentiment, ambition or the love of fame, the ambition to become publicly recognised as a man of this or that kind of ability or power. When this sentiment becomes a ruling passion it may cover almost the whole of conduct, may sup-ply a dominant motive for almost every situation, a motive which arising within the self-regarding sentiment determines volition in the strict sense in which we have defined it. But it is not properly a moral sentiment, and, though it may generate character, the character formed through its agency is not moral character.

For the generation of moral character in the fullest sense, the strong self-regarding sentiment must be combined with one for some ideal of conduct, and it must have risen above dependence on the regards of the mass of men; and the motives supplied by this master-sentiment in the service of the ideal must attain an habitual predominance. There are men, so well described by

( 268) Professor James, who have the sentiment and the ideal of the right kind, but in whom, nevertheless, the fleeting, unorganised desires repeatedly prove too strong for the will to overcome them. They lack the second essential factor in character, the habit of self-control, the habitual dominance of the self-regarding sentiment ; perhaps because the native disposition that is the main root of self-respect is innately lacking in strength; perhaps because they have never learnt to recognise the awful power of habit, and have been content to say, "This time I will not trouble to resist this desire, to sup-press this impulse; I know that I can do so if I really exert my will." Every time this happens, the power of volition is weakened relatively to that of the unorganised desires; every time the self-regarding sentiment masters an impulse of some other source, it is rendered, according to the law of habit, more competent to do so again—the will is strengthened as we say. And, when the habitual dominance of this master-sentiment has been established, perhaps after many conflicts, it becomes capable of determining the issue of every conflict so certainly and easily that conflicts can hardly arise; it supplies a determining motive for every possible situation, namely, the desire that I, the self, shall do the right. So this motive, in the individual for whom it has repeatedly won the day in all conflicts of motives, acquires the irresistible strength of a fixed consolidated habit; and, in accordance with the law of habit, as it becomes more and more fixed and invariable, it operates more and more automatically, i.e., with diminishing intensity of its conscious aspect, with less intensity of the emotion and desire from which the habit was generated, and with less explicit reference to the persons in whose eyes the self seeks approval.

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In this way the self comes to rule supreme over conduct, the individual is raised above moral conflict; he attains character in the fullest sense and a completely generalised will, and exhibits to the world that finest flower of moral growth, serenity. His struggles are no longer moral conflicts, but are intellectual efforts to discover what is most worth doing, what is most right for him to do.

It is important to note, especially in view of the analogy to be drawn between the individual will and the national, or other form of collective or general, will, that the development of self-consciousness and of the self-regarding sentiment renders the behaviour of the individual progressively less dependent upon his environment; that it involves a continuous advance from action of the type of immediate response to the impressions made on the sense-organs and an approximation towards complete self-determination, towards conduct that is the. issue of conditions wholly comprised within the constitution of the mind. Like the evolution of mind in the race, this advance involves also a progress from pre-dominantly mechanical to predominantly teleological de-termination, a continuous increase of the part played by final causes relatively to that of purely mechanical causes in the determination of the behaviour of the individual. No doubt the vague movements of the infant are teleological or purposive in the lowliest sense of the word; but actions do not become the expressions of conscious purpose until the individual attains the capacity of representing the end towards which he feels himself impelled. At the intermediate level of development of the personality, the ends or final causes of his action are immediate, various, and often inharmonious with one another; with the development of a unified personality,

(270) (i.e., of clear self-consciousness, a consistent ideal of conduct and a strong sentiment for the self and for that ideal), these are more and more superseded and con-trolled by a single all-powerful final cause, the ideal of the self.

The foregoing account of volition differs from those of other writers in the stress laid upon the systematic organisation of the conative dispositions in the moral and self-regarding sentiments ; and its principal claim to originality is the attempt made to exhibit the continuity of the development of the highest types of human will and character from the primary instinctive dispositions that we have in common with the animals. Especial importance, as an essential factor in volition, has been attached to the impulse of self-assertion or self-display and its concomitant emotion of positive self-feeling. It may seem paradoxical and repugnant to our sense of the nobility of moral conduct, that it should be exhibited as dependent on an impulse that we share with the animals and which in them plays a part that is of secondary importance and utterly amoral. It should, however, be remembered that the humble nature of the remote origins of any thing we justly admire or revere in nowise de-tracts from its intrinsic worth or dignity, and that the ascertainment of those origins need not, and should not, diminish by one jot our admiration or reverence.


  1. This hypothesis is still maintained by some modern writers of repute. Dr. Rashdall ("Theory of Good and Evil") uses the phrase "the moral consciousness" and makes it the key of his ethical and theological position. By it he means to denote the faculty of judging of ethical value or of judging anything to be good. He regards this faculty in the same way as Kantians regard our faculties of perceiving spatial and temporal relations, namely, as one which, though it may be developed and refined by use, is given a priori as a primary faculty of intuition, one not evolved from more elementary forms of judgment. But he makes no attempt to justify this assumption, on which he hangs so great a weight of consequences. Curiously enough, while the Kantian view of our faculties of spatial and temporal judgment is held to imply that such judgments have no objective value, space and time being purely subjective, Dr. Rashdall finds in the assured a priori character of moral judgment and the moral consciousness his one source of confidence in the objectivity of such judgments.
  2. "Principles of Psychology,"vol. ii., p. 549.
  3. This we may see most clearly in the case of the problem of the evolution of the moral tradition. If, as we have said, the moral tradition has been slowly evolved by the influence of the precept and example of the great moral leaders, and if, as the libertarians maintain, all the moral victories of such leaders, in virtue of which they attain their ascendancy over their fellow-men and their power of moulding the moral tradition, have this mysterious and utterly incomprehensible source, then the growth of the moral tradition may be described but cannot be explained, and we have no—or but very little—ground to suppose that what we can learn of its growth in the past will justify any assumptions or forecasts as to its growth in the future. And this must remain true no matter how small be the quantity of "will-energy" postulated by the libertarians to account for the turning of the scale in the conflict of motives.
  4. I purposely avoid touching upon the more difficult moral problem, How far is punishment of one man justified by its deterrent or reforming effects upon others.
  5. In so far as punishment will produce these effects upon mad-men they have a moral right to be punished. The medical profession generally ignores this truth in its perennial conflict with the lawyers. It is for them to determine which of the mental diseases render the patient's conduct incapable of being con-trolled by punishment or by the threat of it, and which leave him still susceptible to the deterrent and reforming influence of punishment.
  6. The only possible answer of the libertarians to this argument seems to be: Yes, but if this outside influence is "a very little one," we may, by means of punishment, give the good influences a better chance of determining a favourable issue of our moral conflicts. This seems to be the line recent defenders of freewill are inclined to take. They are, nevertheless, bound to admit that, since the magnitude of these outside influences is unknown, the recognition of them must weaken the case for punishment, and must diminish to an unknown and quite incalculable extent our moral responsibility.
  7. The most successful defence of indeterminism yet made is that of Dr. Schiller ("Studies in Humanism"). His position is not quite the same as Professor James's. He suggests that there may arise conjunctions of conditions whose issue is indeterminate in the sense that opposing forces are exactly balanced in an unstable equilibrium, which we might compare to that of a billiard ball balanced on a knife-edge. A strictly minimal force might then determine the issue in either direction, and so pro duce very important consequences; e.g., if the knife-edge were on the water-parting of the Rocky Mountains, the ball might reach the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean, according to the direction of this minimal force. Dr. Schiller points out truly enough that, 'for anything we know, such situations may occur in both the physical and moral spheres ; for, if their issue is thus deter-mined by some such minimal force that is not determined by antecedent conditions, the calculation of the strength of the opposing forces, with sufficient accuracy to enable us to discover the presence of this unconditioned factor, is beyond our power, and we shall probably never be able to make this calculation for the physical, and certainly never for the moral, world. If this unconditioned factor is assumed to be in every case of strictly minimal strength, the admission of its reality will not seriously undermine the principles of moral responsibility; but it will, as pointed out above, introduce an incalculable element among the factors which the student of society has to try to take into account, and therefore will make difficult if not impossible the attempt to construct a science of history and of society. Whether it would lighten in any degree the moral difficulty of determinism discussed above is a more difficult and subtle problem; I cannot at present see that it can have any such result, save in the following way: it would allow us to believe in "a power, not ourselves,, that makes for righteousness," and such a belief might encourage and stimulate us to make efforts towards the realisation of the purpose of that power. Since, then, a decision of this question cannot be attained on empirical grounds, it remains open to us to postulate indeterminism; and if such postulation makes for the predominance of right conduct, it is difficult to find any good reason for refusing to follow James and Schiller when they ask us to commit ourselves to it.
  8. 'This view seems to be maintained still by Professor Höffding in'a recent article in the Revue Philosophique (1907), "Sur la Nature de la Volonté."
  9. "'Mind," New Series, vol. v. '
  10. Ibid., vol. iv.
  11. “Analytic Psychology," vol. i, p. 243.
  12. Experiments that seem to establish this point were described by the author in the fourth of the series of papers entitled "Physiological Factors of the Attention-Process," "Mind," N.S., vol. xv. Some of these experiments have since been repeated and confirmed by MM. Et. Maigre and H. Piéron (Revue de Psychiatrie et de Psychologie Expérimental, Avril, 1907).
  13. 'For a fuller discussion of this question and a theory of the inhibitory process see a paper by the author, "The Nature of Inhibitory Processes within the Nervous System" in "Brain," vol. xxvi., and his review of Professor Sherrington's "Integrative Action of the Nervous System" in "Brain," vol. xxx
  14. "The Groundwork of Psychology."
  15. Some authors wax scornful when they examine the statement that the self is the all-important factor in volition. But the view they scornfully reject is that which makes the abstract ego, the logical subject of all our experiences, or the transcendental self, the source of the power of the will. If self is meant to be taken in either of these two senses in this connection, the scorn of these writers is perhaps justifiable when they stigmatise it as a mere metaphysical abstraction. It is for this reason better to say always the idea of self (rather than simply the self) is an essential factor in volition.
  16. Ideas of this latter kind have not the irresistible force often attributed to them. Dr. Bramwell has argued very strongly that if they are opposed to the organised tendencies of the subject they will in no case realise themselves in action ("Hypnotism, its History, Theory, and Practice"). In my opinion his view is in the main correct, though, no doubt, he has a little over-driven it.

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