1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Purposive Action

(Part 64)

(I) Emotional and Conative Action (cont.)

Purposive Action

To ascertain the origin and progress of purposive action it seems, then, that we must look to the effects of pain rather than to those of pleasure. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all things are full of labour. It is true that psychologists not unfrequently describe the earliest purposive movements as appetitive; or at least they treat appetitive and aversive movements as co-ordinate and equally primitive, pleasures being supposed to lead to actions for their continuance as much as pains to actions for their removal. No doubt, as soon as the connexion between a pleasurable sensation and the appropriate action is completely established, as in the case of imbibing food, the whole process is then self-sustaining till satiety begins. But the point is that such facility was first acquired under the teaching of pain, -- the pain of unsatisfied hunger. The term "appetite" is apt both by its etymology and its later associations to be misleading. What are properly called the "instinctive" appetites are – when regarded from their active side – movements determined by some existing uneasy sensation. So far as their earliest manifestation in a particular individual is concerned, this urgency seems almost entirely of the nature of a vis a tergo; and the movements are only more definite than those simply expressive of pain because of inherited pre-adaptation, on which account, of course, they are called "instinctive." But what one inherits another must have acquired, and we have agreed here to leave heredity on one side and consider only the original evolution.

But if none but psychological causes were at work this evolution would be very long and in its early stages very uncertain. At first, when only random movements ensue, we may fairly suppose both that the chance of at once making a happy hit would be small and that the number of chances, the space for repentance, would also be small. Under such circumstances natural selection would have to do almost everything and subjective selection almost nothing. So far as natural selection worked, we should have, not the individual subject making a series of tries and perfecting itself by practice, as in learning to dance or swim, but we should have those individuals whose stuff or structure happened to vary for the better surviving, increasing, and displacing the rest. How much natural selection, apparently unaided, can accomplish in the way of complicated adjustment we see in the adaptation of the form and colour of plants and animals to their environment. Both factors, in reality, operates at once, and it would be hard to fix a limit to either, though to our minds natural selection seems to lose in comparative importance as we advance towards the higher stages of life.

But psychologically we have primarily to consider subjective selection, i.e., first of all, the association of particular movements through the mediation of feeling. The sensations here concerned are mainly painful excitations from the environment, the recurring plains of innutrition, weariness, &c., and pleasurable sensations due to the satisfaction of these organic wants – pleasures which, although not a mere "filling up," as Plato at one time contended, are still preceded by pain, but imply over and above the removal of this a certain surplus of positive good. There seem only a few points to notice. (a) When the movements that ensue through pleasure are themselves pleasurable there is ordinarily no ground for singling out any one; such movements simply enhance the general enjoyment, which is complete in itself and so far contains no hint of anything beyond.

(b) Should one of these spontaneous movements of pleasure chance to cause pain, no doubt such movement is speedily arrested. Probably the most immediate connexion possible between feeling and purposive action is that in which a painful movement leads through pain to its own suppression. But such connexion is not very fruitful of consequences, inasmuch as it only secures what we may call internal training and does little to extend the relation of the individual to its environment. (c) Out of the irregular, often conflicting movements which indirectly relieve pain some one may chance to remove the cause of it altogether. Upon this movement, the last of a tentative series, attention, released from the pain, is concentrated; and in this way the evil and the remedy become so far associated that on a recurrence of the former the many diffused movements become less, and the one purposive movements more, pronounced; the one effectual way is at length established and the others, which were but palliatives, disappear. (d) When things have advanced so far that some one definite movement is definitely represented along with the painful sensation it remedies, it is not long before a still further advance is possible and we have preventive movements. Thanks to the orderliness of things, dangers have their premonitions. After a time, therefore, the occurrence of some signal sensation revives the image of the harm that has previously followed in its wake, and a movement – either like the first, or another that has to be selected from the random tries of fear – occurs in time to avert the impending ill. (e) In like manner, provided the cravings of appetite are felt, any signs of the presence of pleasurable objects prompts to movements for their enjoyment or appropriation. In these last cases we have action determined by perceptions. The cases in which the subject is incited to action by ideas as distinct from perceptions require a more detailed consideration; such are the facts mainly covered by the term "desire."

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