1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Relation of Desire to Feeling

(Part 66)

(I) Emotional and Conative Action (cont.)

Relation of Desire to Feeling

However the desire may have been called forth, its intensity is primarily identical with the strength of this impulse to action, and has non definite or constant relation to the amount of pleasure that may result from its satisfaction. The feelings directly consequent on desire as a state of want and restraint is one of pain, and the reaction which this pain sets up may either suppress the desire or prompt to effort to avoid or overcome the obstacles in its way.

To inquire into these alternatives would lead us into the higher phases of voluntary action; but we must first consider the relation of desire to feeling more closely.

Instances are by no means wanting of very imperious desires accompanied by the clear knowledge that their gratification will be positively distasteful. [Footnote 74-1] On the other hand it is possible to recollect or picture circumstances known or believed to be intensely pleasurable without any desire for them being awakened at all: we can regret or admire without desiring. Yet there are many psychologists who maintain that desire is excited only by the prospect of the pleasure that may arise through its gratification, and that the strength of the desire is proportional to the intensity of the pleasure thus anticipated. Quidquid petitur, petitur sub specie boni is their main formula. The plausibility of this doctrine rests partly upon a seemingly imperfect analysis of what strictly pertains to desire and partly on the fact that it is substantially true both of what we may call "presentation-prompted" action, which belongs to an earlier stage than desire, and of the more or less rational action that comes later. In the very moment of enjoyment it may be fairly supposed that action is sustained solely by the pleasure received and is proportional to the intensity of that pleasure. But there is proportional to the intensity of that pleasure. But there is here no re-presentation and no seeking; the conditions essential to desire, therefore, do not apply. Again, in rational action, where both are present, it may be true – to quote the words of an able advocate of the view here controverted – that "our character as rational beings is to desire everything exactly according to its pleasure value." [Footnote 74-2] But consider what such conceptions as the good, pleasure value, and rational action involve. Here we have foresight and calculation, regard for self as an object of permanent interest, -- Butler’s cool self-love; but desire as such is blind, without either the present certainty of sense or the assured prevision of reason. Pleasure in the past, no doubt, has usually brought about the association between the representation of the desired object and the movement for its realization; but neither the recollection of this pleasure nor its anticipation is necessary to desire, and even when present they do not determine what urgency it will have. The best proof of this lies in certain habitual desires. Pleasures are diminished by repetition, whilst habits are strengthened by it; if the intensity of desire, therefore, were proportioned to the "pleasure value" of its gratification, the desire for renewed gratification should diminish as this pleasure grows less; but, if the present pain of restraint from action determines the intensity of desire, this should increase as the action becomes habitual. And observation seems to show that, unless prudence suggest the forcible suppression of belated desires or the active energies themselves fail, desires do in fact become more imperious, although less productive of positive pleasure, as time goes on.

In this there is, of course, no exception to the general principle that action is consequent on feeling, -- a greater pleasure being preferred before a less, a less pain before a greater; for, though the feeling that follows upon its satisfaction be less or even change entirely, still the pain of the unsatisfied desire increases as the desire hardens into habit. It is also a point in favour of the position here taken that appetites, which may be compared to inherited desires, certainly prompt to action by present pain rather than by prospective pleasure.


74-1 As such an instance may be cited Plato’s story of Leontius, the son of Aglaeon, in Republic, iv. 439 fin.

74-2 Bain, Emotions and Will, 3rd ed., p. 438.

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