1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Conation

(Part 13)

(B) General Analysis of Mind. Its Ultimate Constituents. (cont.)


nAnd this has brought us round naturally to what is perhaps the easiest way for approaching the question : What is a conation or action? In ordinary voluntary movement we have first of all an idea or re-presentation of the movements, and last of all the actual movement itself,—a new presentation which may for the present be described as the filling out of the re-presentation, [Footnote 42-1] which thereby attains that intensity, distinctness, and embodiment we call reality. How does this change come about? The attempt has often been made to explain it by a reference to the more uniform, and apparently simpler, case of reflex action, including under this tem what are called sensorimotor and ideo-moter actions. In all these the movement seems to be the result of a mere transference of intensity from the associated sensation or idea that sets on the movement. But, when by some chance or mischance the same sensory presentation excites two alternatives and conflicting motor idea, a temporary block, it is said, occurs ; and, when at length one of these nascent motor changes finally prevails and becomes real, then we have the state of mind called volition.1 But his assumption that sensory and motor ideas are associated before volition, and that the volition begins where automatic or reflex action ends, is due to that inveterate habit of confounding the psychical and the physical which is bane of modern psychology. How did these particular sensory and motor presentations ever come to be associated? It is whoolly beside the mark to answer that they are "organically determined psychical changes." In one respect all psychical changes alike are organically determined, inasmuch as all a like—so far, at least, as we at all know or surmise—have organic concomitants. In another respects no psychical changes are organically determined, inasmuch a physical events and psychical events have no common factors. Now the only psychological evidence we have of any very intimate connexion between sensory and motor representations is that furnished by our acquired dexterities, i.e., by such movements as Hartley styled secondary automatic. But then all these have been preceded by volition: as Mr Spencer says, "the child learning to walk wills each movement before walking it." Surely, then, as psychologist should take this as his typical case and prefer to assume that all automatic actions that come within his ken at all are in this sense secondarily automatic, i.e., to say that either in the experience of the individual or of his ancestors volition, or something analogous to it, preceded habit.

But, if we are thus compelled by a sound method to regard sensori-motor actions as degraded or mechanical forms of voluntary actions, instead of regarding voluntary actions as gradually differentiated out of something physical, we have not to ask : What happens when one of two alternative movements is executed? but the more general question : What happens when any movement is made in consequence of feeling? It is obvious that on this view the simplest definitely purposive movement must have been preceded by some movement simpler still. For any distinct movement purposely made presuppose the ideal presentation, being a re-presentation, equally presupposes a previous actual movement of which it is the so-called mental residuum. There is then, it would seem, but one way left, viz, to regard those movements which are immediately expressive of pleasure or pain as primordial, and to regard the so-called voluntary movements as elaborated out of these. The vague and diffusive character of these primitive emotional manifestations is really a point in favour of this position. For such "diffusion" is evidence of an underlying continuity of motor presentations parallel to that already discussed in connexion with sensory presentations, a continuity which, in each ease becomes differentiated in the course of experience into comparatively distinct and discrete movements and sensations respectively.2

But, where as we can only infer, and that in a very roundbout fashion, that our sensations are not absolutely distinct but are parts of one massive sensation, as it were, we are still liable under the influence of strong emotion directly to experience the corresponding continuity in the case of movement. Such motor-continuum we may suppose is the psychical counterpart of that permanent readiness to act, or rather that continual nascent acting, which among the older physiologist was spoken of as "tonic action" ; and as this in now known to be intimately dependent on afferent excitations so is our motor consciousness on our sensory. Still, since we cannot imagine the beginning of life but only life begun, the simplest picture we can form of a concrete state of mind is not one in which there are movements before there are any sensations or sensations before there are any movements, but one in which change of sensation is followed by change of movement, the link between the two being a change of feeling.


[42-1] On the connexion of presentations and re-presentations, see p. 59 below.

[43-1] Compare Spencer’s Principles of Psychology, i. 496.

[43-2] It may be well to call to mind here that Dr Bain also has regarded emotional expression as a possible commencement of action, but only to reject it in favour of his own peculiar doctrine of "spontaneity," which, however, is open to the objection that it makes movement precede feeling instead of following it—an objection that would be serious even if the arguments advanced to support his hypothesis were as cogent as only Dr Bain takes them to be. Against the position maintained above he objects that "the emotional almost invariably affects a whole group of movement," and therefore does not furnish the "isolated promptings that are desiderated in the case of will" (Mental and Moral Science, p. 323). But to make this objection is to let heredity count for nothing. In fact, wherever a variety of isolated movements is physically possible, there also we always find corresponding instincts, ‘that untaught ability to perform actions," to use Dr Bain’s own language, which a minimum of practice suffices to perfect.

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