1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Desire

(Part 65)

(I) Emotional and Conative Action (cont.)


By the time that ideas are sufficiently self-sustaining to form trains that are not wholly shaped by the circumstances of the present, entirely new possibilities of action are opened up. We can desire to live again through experiences of which there is nothing actually present to remind us, and we can desire a new experience which are yet we only imagine. We often, no doubt, apply the term to the simpler states mentioned under (e) in the last paragraph: the fox in the fable is said to gave desired the grapes he vilified because out of his reach. Again, at the other extreme it is usual to speak to a desire for honour, or for wealth, and the like; but such are not so much single states of mind as inclinations or habitual desires. Moreover, abstractions of this kind belong to a more advanced stage of development than that at which desire begins, and of necessity imply more complicated grounds of action than we can at present examine. The essential characteristics of desire will be more apparent if we suppose a case somewhere between these extremes. A busy man reads a novel at the close of the day, and finds himself led off by a reference to angling or tropical scenery to picture himself with his rods packed en route for Scotland, or booked by the next steamer for the fairyland of the West Indies. Presently, while the ideas of Jamaica or fishing are at least as vividly imagined as before, the fancies preparations receive a rude shock as the thought of his work recurs. Some such case we may take as typical and attempt to analyse it.

First of all it is obviously true, at least of such more concrete desires, that what awakens desire at one time fails to do so at another, and that we are often so absorbed or content with the present as not to be amenable to (new) desires at all. A given X and Y cannot, then, be called desirable per se, it is only desirable by relation to the contents of consciousness at the moment. Of what nature is this relation? (1) At the level of psychical life that we have now reached very closed and complete connexions have been formed between ideas and the movements necessary for their realization, so that when the idea is vividly present these movements are apt to be nascent. This association is the result of subjective selection – i.e., of feeling – but, being once established, it persists like other associations independently to it. (2) Those movements are especially apt to become nascent which have not been recently executed, which are therefore fresh and accompanied by the organic sensations of freshness, but also those which are frequently executed, and so from habit readily aroused. The latter fact, which chiefly concerns habitual desires, may be left aside for a time. (3) At times, then, when there is a lack of present interests, or when these have begun to wane, or when there is positive pain, attention is ready to fasten on any new suggestion that calls for more activity, requires a change of active attitude, or promises relief. Such spontaneous concentration of attention ensures greater vividness to the new idea, whatever it be, and to its belongings. In some cases this greater vividness may suffice. This is most likely to happen the new idea affords intellectual occupation, and this is at the time congenial, or with indolent and imaginative persons who prefer dreaming to doing. (4) But when the new idea does not lead off the pent-up stream of action by opening out fresh channels, when, instead of this, it is one that keeps them intent upon itself in an attitude comparable to expectation, then we have desire. In such a state the intensity of the re-presentation is not adequate to the intensity of the incipient actions it has arouses. This is most obvious when the latter are directed towards sensations or percepts, and the former remains only an idea. If it were possible by concentrating attention to convert ideas into percepts, there would be an end of most desires: "if wishes were horses beggars would ride." (5) But our voluntary power over movements is in general of this kind: here the fiat many become fact. When we cannot hear we can at least listen, and, though there be nothing to fill them, we can at least hold out our hands. It would seem, then, that the sources of desire lies essentially in this excess of the active reaction above the intensity of the re-presentation (the one constituting the "impulse," the other the "object" of desire, or the desideratum), and that this disparity rests ultimately on the fact that movements have, and sensations have not, a subjective initiative. (6) The impulse or striving to act will, as already hinted, be stronger the greater the available energy, the fewer the present outlets, and habits, apart, the fresher the new opening for activity. (7) Finally, it is to be noted that, when such inchoate action can be at once consummated, desire ends where it begins: to constitute a definite state of desire there must be not only an obstacle to the realization of the desideratum – if this were all we should rather call the state one of wishing – but an obstacle to its realization by means of the actions its representation has aroused.

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